Austin Police to work the GOP National Convention
Every four years, since the beginning of George W. Bush's second presidential term, the Austin Police Department has sent members of its Special Response Team to Washington, D.C., to help with crowd control at the presidential inauguration. In July, for the first time, APD plans to send SRT troops to the Republican National Convention. The squad – made up of voluntarily participating officers from various ranks and units throughout the department, and deployed at events like Halloween on Sixth Street, the Texas Relays, and large-scale demonstrations around the city – has never been needed at such a forum. But because of Donald Trump's ability to incite riots, it's headed up to Cleveland.
Two platoons – "roughly 87 officers," said Stephen Deaton, a commander in APD's Organized Crime Division who moonlights as a commander of the SRT – from the team's 150-person pool are currently scheduled for attendance at the Republican National Convention for five days in July. They'll be joined there by an estimated 2,000 other officers from various municipal and state agencies around the country, as well as an expected 50,000 attendees and activists. APD's contributing officers are expected at a training session on Sunday, July 17. Officers will spend the next four days at one of three RNC locations: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland Convention Center, and a nearby hotel. They'll take part in one additional day of cleanup before boarding planes back to Austin. (A spokesperson for the Cleveland Police Department declined to respond to an inquiry into which other agencies had been asked, and refused to answer other questions.)
"We look at it as a testament to the work of our Special Response Team," Assistant Chief Chris McIlvain told the Chronicle. "Cleveland isn't asking every city in the nation to participate. It really is a testament to how well our officers are trained and how well they respond to situations like this that they're being asked to help in Cleveland this summer. It's a chance for our officers to work with other agencies and show what our policies and procedures are."
A memorandum of understanding signed by Police Chief Art Acevedo and City Manager Marc Ott in early May indicates that Austin won't bear any significant financial burden for its assistance. Thanks to what Deaton identified as a $50 million grant from the Department of Justice, Cleveland plans to reimburse each participating agency for salaries, pensions, and travel. Cleveland is making arrangements for food and lodging for each officer. Both the Austin Police Association and executive staff recognize that the city of Austin will remain on the hook for incentive pay – which pays officers nominal monthly bonuses for certain specialties and credentials – though the cost to pay out five days of that allotment will be inconsequential for the city.
What's less clear after perusing the memorandum is what effect sending 87 officers up to Cleveland will have on APD operations in Austin. From Acevedo through the rank-and-file, the department has been vocal about its current staffing shortage. Currently the department is saying that there are approximately 150 officer vacancies. The brunt of that deficit currently falls on street patrol, where shifts have shrunken enough to necessitate major changes of personnel. Two Sundays ago, the department began an initiative that will pull detectives from their desks for 21 days each year and put them on the street for one-week patrol shifts scheduled roughly every four months.
Last Thursday at City Council, during a discussion concerning whether the city should pay Virginia law enforcement retailer Major Police Supply $350,000 to equip APD's Auto Theft Interdiction Project with automated license plate recognition systems to alleviate the strain on patrol officers of searching for stolen vehicles, Acevedo and APA Vice President Andrew Romero both made mention of the department's current dearth of officers and reliance on overtime spending; Romero called the shortage a "crisis." Pressed later on why approving the contract with MPS was so time-sensitive, Acevedo referred back to Romero's classification: "We are a department that's hundreds of officers short of what we truly need for the fastest-growing city and the fastest-growing region."
Deaton said that only 30 of the 87 officers heading to Cleveland currently work on the street. (The rest do detective work, highway enforcement, or hold various ranks in specialized units.) Speaking Tuesday, McIlvain added that though the MOU was only signed this month, the department has actually been considering its likely participation in RNC crowd management since December. He does not anticipate the department having to spend an inordinately high amount of overtime dollars during the week the SRT is in Cleveland. APD has 67 different patrol shifts, and McIlvain said that command "worked to ensure" that shifts would only be impacted by the weeklong departure of one officer. In instances where commanders do foresee a staffing issue, he said, it would be up to them to "shift resources internally" – a standard objective of that rank.
"In the grand scheme of things, it's no different than if one person wanted to take vacation," he said. "In fact, it's likely a lesser impact, because I guarantee that we have more than 30 people who take vacation on any given week on patrol. It's more about making sure our commanders plan for it, and having the shift supervisors plan accordingly."
The Association initially contested the decision; APA president Ken Casaday told the Austin American-Statesman that the Fifth Floor's decision to even entertain the idea of pulling officers out of Austin to help another city mitigate the violence and commotion that could erupt as a result of Trump's presence "seems a little strange." Casaday recognizes that the SRT members going to Cleveland are doing so on their own volition. He and a representative from Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) are planning to head there also: mostly, he said, to represent the union in the event of an officer injury. Like many within the community, however, he wonders why the department would do anything to reduce the number of active officers within its own city when that number is already too low.