AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) is, for now, suspending its partnership with the Austin Police Department so troopers can report to Texas border cities following the expiration of Title 42.
Saturday was the last day of the controversial partnership, and Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said it is unclear when it will begin again.
“I’d like to take this moment to thank DPS for the work they have done to assist in keeping our community safe,” Chacon said on Saturday. “Over the last several weeks, they have assisted in lowering the number of calls related to violent crime, removed stolen guns and vehicles from the streets and recovered large quantities of illegal narcotics, as well as helping to increase traffic safety in our city.”
The partnership began on March 27 to alleviate APD staffing issues.
Longer wait times for officers to respond to calls and a growing backlog of tasks are what Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly (District 6) and retired police officer Jerry Staton say are the potential consequences of the partnership's suspension.
"We are short anywhere from 300 to 400 officers at this point," Kelly said. "And so, while we were bleeding officers, we didn't have backfill coming in to replace them. And it's led to a point where we are in a crisis."
Staton worked as an Austin police officer for 25 years.
"I can tell you for a fact, even though I am not there on a daily basis, the morale of police officers in Austin is probably at an all-time low in the 47 years I've been involved in the industry," Staton said.
A month ago, Austin police provided some numbers on how they say the partnership benefited the city. The first week, the department said the number of violent crimes dropped 25% from the average weekly number for the past year. Response times and calls for emergencies went down too.
But the partnership has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after data revealed DPS troopers were arresting people of color for misdemeanors at a disproportionate rate.
The Austin Justice Coalition , ACLU Texas and other advocate groups gathered at City Hall earlier this month to call on City leaders to end their request for extra DPS patrols. The groups accused DPS troopers of targeting minority groups and criticized City leaders for not including their voice in the decision to bring DPS troopers to Austin.
DPS Director Steven McCraw said troopers were patrolling areas that have high crime. But Chacon said the police department would shift that strategy.
“It's really not targeting a neighborhood,” McCraw said earlier this month. “We're really targeting crime in the neighborhood. And really, we're about protecting that neighborhood from crime. So that's what's got different terms. And I think that's an important part. We view our role is to go in, and if you see six police officers or six troopers, when you turn around, you should feel safe, not threatened.”
Mark Sawa is retired from the Travis County Sheriff's Office after nearly 30 years. He said police leaders have a "golden opportunity" to stand in front of those holding the statistics up.
"Stand tall and show the community how it's not. But if it is, to also stand tall and take it on the chin and rectify the problem that is occurring," Sawa said.
APD says it's unknown when the partnership could return.
"We are in an uncertain time as far as the timeline for when vacancies at the police department will be filled," Kelly said. "I would just say to the community, if you see a police officer in your neighborhood or on the street, please go up and thank them."
APD will provide more updates on the partnership during the Public Safety Committee meeting on May 22.