Knee-Jerk Reactions

APD Chief Knee announces plans to fix the city's police response time problems and reduce traffic fatalities. But will simply moving cops around work?

At his May 30 press conference, Austin Police Dept. Chief Stan Knee announced the first quarter of 2002 has brought a mixed bag of news for Austin. A high note: Citywide, police response times to highest-priority 911 calls have fallen to an average of seven minutes, 49 seconds -- down from October 2001's high of nine-minutes-plus, and last spring's average of just under nine minutes. (A glitch in the computer systems left data for November unavailable, but Knee said he was certain that month would've "exceeded" October's high.)

Response times are down because of efficiency restructuring within the call-taking and dispatching operations, as well as greater flexibility for staffing given to each of the city's command areas, Knee said. Furthermore, the success of the new downtown area command has been "key" in providing a model for reducing response times. In September, APD carved out the new command (centered on the downtown business and entertainment districts), which shrank the central west command and the overall ground area officers routinely cover. The department plans to carve at least two more new area commands out of existing sectors in the north and southwest areas of the city, which "creates flexibility in staffing and how we solve problems," Knee said. APD spokesman Paul Flaningan says new commands could be up and running within a year.

But while response times have lowered citywide -- with the downtown and central east commands boasting the quickest times, both under seven minutes -- they remain near the nine-minute mark in the city's northwest sector, and just over eight minutes in both the southwest and central west. Those three sectors are the city's largest, according to department figures.

And ironically, while more officers seem able to get to more calls more quickly, Knee lamented the rising numbers of deadly accidents on Austin's roadways -- which over Memorial Day weekend left four Austinites dead. Fifteen of this year's 31 traffic fatalities (48%) involved alcohol, leading APD to plan a beef-up in traffic enforcement and especially DWI enforcement, Knee said. He did not mince words, calling the alcohol-related fatalities "horrible murders" on Austin's roadways.

Officers will target businesses that sell alcohol to minors or that serve already intoxicated patrons -- a strategy that Knee said could have more overall impact than just ticketing and arresting individuals. "The issue is not arresting people, it's changing behavior," he said. The department will likely challenge more liquor license renewals through the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and will run more serving-to-minor sting operations. Officers are currently looking at several businesses -- mostly centered on the East Sixth Street area -- associated with a high rate of "calls for service," including the two Texaco stations in the 700 and 900 blocks of I-35 and the Chevron station in the 600 block. The stations have registered nearly 200 calls for service apiece since January, and each sold alcohol to a minor during recent sting operations. "These are poorly run businesses," Knee said. "We will be contacting the owners."

One strategy has already proven successful. Across the highway at the Mobil station at East Seventh and I-35, Knee said, station owners have tightened up their business practices and have dramatically reduced the number of calls made to the police. "It's preventative enforcement," said the chief. Still, preventative enforcement Knee-style will mean some staff restructuring and reorganizing -- for instance, moving officers off of some school zone duties (odd, since summer school begins next week) and assigning available officers overtime to assist in "DWI pursuits."

Will all this juggling make less officers available to answer other calls for service, in effect causing response times to increase again? According to Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield, juggling resources will only do so much. "We need the additional staffing now, and I don't know why we just don't say that," he said. "All we're doing is acting like the little Dutch boy, plugging holes with our fingers every time they appear. Eventually we're going to run out of fingers."

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