The Austin Chronicle

"Magistration Center" for APD?

Plan could save money, sidestep S-Comm immigration holds

By Tony CantĂș, September 5, 2014, News

At the Aug. 28 City Council meeting, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo formally proposed the idea of establishing a "magistration center" to be run by the Austin Police Department – a facility that would eliminate the need to transport people arrested for minor infractions to the Travis County Jail for booking and processing (aka "magistration" by a municipal judge). One purpose, for police officers, is less time pulled away from patrol. Early proponents of the plan also include immigrants' rights advocates, who view the center as a way of avoiding 48-hour holds the Travis County Sheriff's Office automatically places on arrested undocumented immigrants, a consequence of TCSO's strict adherence to the federal "Secure Communities" initiative facilitating deportations.

In a joint briefing with Assistant Police Chief Brian Manley, Acevedo stressed the potential savings – both in police officers' time and city expenditures – by building an 18,000-square-foot facility, even with its $11 million initial price tag. He said his officers currently spend an average of 58 minutes booking suspects at the Downtown county jail, and that APD could eventually achieve a collective gain of 50,000 patrol hours a year by running its own magistration facility. All told, according to APD's estimates, after 11 years of running the center, the city would save some $15 million, helping curb the amount the city pays to use the jail and for officer overtime. Acevedo proposed locating the center on city-owned industrial property at Rutherford and Cam­er­on, just north of Highway 183. "We project, based on what's happened in the past five or 10 years, that we'll be able to recoup the costs by year five, and we project that we'd be able to save taxpayers about $15 million," he said. "Whether or not that [estimate] goes down, I'm willing to bet you we'll see a significant savings after that 11 years."

Council took no action, but members responded favorably. Council Member (and mayoral candidate) Mike Martinez suggested potential funding that would avoid a tax bite. "One of the things we did with the 2006 bond package was ... we moved forward with the new Animal Services center in East Austin and were about $4 million short," Martinez said. "And so we looked into the 2006 bond package and took the interest from those bonds sales, which totaled $4 million, which helped us close the gap. I just want to suggest that we look into alternative sources of funding."

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and CM Laura Morrison raised the issue of S-Comm and county enforcement, which helps the feds deport an average of 19 people a week. Local immigrants' rights advocates say a magistration center might circumvent the 48-hour holds for some people arrested without documentation (the hold enables immigration officials to run fingerprints and check the arrestee's status, with an eye to potential deportation). In a June resolution, Council repudiated S-Comm, directing the city manager to minimize use of the county booking facility until S-Comm participation ends.

On the other hand, by the time an Austin magistration center could be built (12 to 18 months), said Acevedo, the S-Comm program might have been changed at the federal level, in response to a nationwide community backlash. "By the time we finish the conversation on this process ... I predict by the end of the year – there's going to be some administrative orders and changes ... to the Secure Communities program that will alleviate community concern," Acevedo said. "I don't think it'll be an issue by the time we go down this path. It's going to be a moot point."

Acevedo also said that proposals for a magistration center (similar to one APD operated years ago) have been considered for several years (see "APD Proposes Cost-Saving Measures," April 27, 2012). Other jurisdictions have such facilities, including Corpus Christi's Magistration and Deten­tion Center, where arrestees are taken for processing and magistration in a facility that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. San Antonio has a similar set-up. (In the magistration process, a judge states the charges, advises the arrestee of his constitutional rights, and sets bail.) Given the lack of long-term city holding facilities, serious offenders would still be transported to county jail, Acevedo said. But according to Acevedo, roughly 70% of all arrests, and consequent magistrations, are for minor offenses.

Reached for a reaction last week, in anticipation of the APD proposal, Sheriff Greg Hamilton said his office would assist the APD in such a transition, but the move would not impact his own approach to county law enforcement. He issued an emailed statement through spokesman Roger Wade: "We will do everything we can to help them in successful transition if they choose to build their own booking facility. It will not change the way the Sheriff's Office conducts business."

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