Austin at Large: Hit Me With Your Worst Shot
Doesn’t this weekend’s carnage illustrate exactly why policing as usual isn’t enough?
At 8am on Saturday, as much of Austin had yet to awaken and learn that 15* people had been shot on Sixth Street a few hours earlier, the Austin Police Association was ready for action on the social media front lines. "Austin is no longer the safe, fun and weird city it used to be," the union tweeted. "We want the safe Austin back, not this new one Council has created." Later in the day, after bringing our coverage of the violence up to date, I responded that this was "reprehensible bullshit," which it was, for reasons I don't think really need to be explained, do they?
Lots of other folks on the socials seemed to feel the same way. They clapped back at APA's brutish and unseemly haste in inserting itself and its political agenda into other people's tragedies. But even more so, they called bullshit with a quickness on the union and its allied coptivists for carping that Austin's police force is understaffed. East Sixth Street on a busy weekend may be the single most heavily policed location in all of Texas, they noted; any of the literally millions of people who've dipped into Dirty Sixth on such occasions can tell you that. Yet it appears two kids from Killeen brought some high school beef down here from Bell County and pulled out weapons, heedless of the cops all around them, and ineptly or indifferently sent a dozen-plus bystanders to the hospital, one later to die, one unlikely to ever walk again.
Everybody Plays Their Part
I honestly have no beef, high school or otherwise, with APA President Ken Casaday, known to most everyone as "Box." His job is to advocate for the interests of his organization and its members; those interests include continuing to bring in new members. Thus, it will always be the union's position that Austin police staffing needs to be set by formula and increase automatically as the city grows. It would probably be impossible for Casaday to advocate otherwise even if he wanted to, lest he lose the confidence of his members. The Austin Police Department is itself the size of Austin High School, and bigger than some towns in Travis County; as you often read in these pages, it has lots of politics and cliques and dirty laundry and gossip.
A goal of "2.0 staffing" – two sworn officers per 1,000 Austinites – is thus a simple rallying cry for a police force that has yet to really square up against the more complex and sophisticated goals of those who it now sees as its political foes. Casaday kinda moved the goal posts a bit later in the week when, responding to my last post about the shooting, he invited me on a ride-along: "Yes, Downtown was staffed at 100%," he tweeted. "If this incident would have occurred anywhere else in Austin you would have seen more dead and a much slower response time." He could be right. Does that mean we must hire more cops, or could we better use the ones we have?
What went down on Dirty Sixth just before last call on Saturday morning, in the eyes of both leaders and followers on the de-policing side of Austin's debate, illustrates exactly why we need to talk about public safety differently. "Reimagine" it, if you will. That would include needed action well upstream of the commission of a crime, an outbreak of violence, or a tactical response from law enforcement. What's up with these kids in Killeen? Why do they have guns? What beef could they have that rises to the level of gunplay? Why are they driving 60 miles to party while underage? (OK, I did that too in high school, but not with guns.) All that stuff.
Conservatives get their back up when progressives talk about systems and root causes, because they've come to associate those complex dialogues with feeling personally disrespected. But what else should we talk about here? Did you think these kids were corrupted by critical race theory? Did I ask already why they had guns?
We've All Got Work To Do
In any event, a heavy show of force did nothing to prevent a mass shooting. The officers on the scene followed APD policy and rendered aid to the wounded, and lives were saved. That doesn't always happen, even in Austin, as we've reported; a bill making it a duty under state law sits on the governor's desk, weakened in transit by the police lobby of which APA is a component.
With incidents like this, or like the murder of Garrett Foster a year ago, we're told we must have enough police on hand to provide basic life support until paramedics can traverse the crowds and reach the wounded when the scene is secured. Would you be shocked to know that other big cities have solved this problem, and their trained medics can timely reach disaster and crime scenes? Casaday's counterpart at the Austin/Travis County EMS Employee Association, Selena Xie, can tell you all about it. It's a thing cities can do when they haven't been forced to throw scarce dollars at arbitrary staffing formulas, or else be vilified for "defunding the police."
What if, instead, we worked with benchmarks (personnel, funding, geographic coverage, response time) for the whole of Austin's first-response apparatus? The city budget, as laid out under Spencer Cronk, gestures at doing this with its focus on a strategic "safety" outcome and identified performance indicators, but it could be a lot more robust if people outside Cronk's office – particularly in our police force – took such considerations as seriously as this weekend's bloodshed should warrant.
Editor's note/Update 6-17-21 4pm: APD has updated the number of victims to 15.