How would more cops impact Austin's rising gun violence? What the chief and experts say.

A city report notes that the disturbing trend was well underway before 2020

By Tony Plohetski
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Eleven days into 2021, Austin homicide investigators stood over the body of 31-year-old Matthew Bocard, who died along an East Austin highway after being shot.

Eight months later, the first homicide of the year remains unsolved. Investigators believe Bocard's death may have been linked to his possible role in an auto parts theft ring.

Bocard's murder barely made headlines. But it is now especially noteworthy for leading what has become an especially deadly year in Austin.

As Austin grapples with reshaping the role of policing as part of a national move toward reform, the discussion is playing out amid shifting perceptions among some of how crime is affecting their sense of safety.

Those who value established policing models point to Austin's recent sharp rise in murders and gun crimes as a reason to bolster traditional law enforcement models, often stoking fears in calls for more officers.

"They pretend like Austin is sort of a hellhole, unsafe city," said Scott Henson, an East Austin resident who blogs about criminal justice issues.

Indeed, the city already has had the most homicides ever recorded in a single year, according to records going back to 1960. The increase in violent deaths started before calls for police reform infused discussions of crime, but some say the trend nonetheless colors their views on police reform.

A city report released this spring found that although gun violence and crimes related to guns have increased significantly, the disturbing trend was well underway before 2020. Council members had grown so alarmed by escalating numbers that they created a special task force concerning gun violence in 2019.

Austin homicides are up, but thefts are down

But several recent major incidents, including a mass shooting on Sixth Street in June that killed a New York tourist and injured 13 others, have fueled concerns about safety, renewed calls for more officers and intensified a sense among some that Austin is becoming more dangerous. Police leaders say downtown patrols were properly staffed that night, but the family of victim Doug Kantor has cited Austin's lack of officers as a factor in the shooting.

Often overlooked in Austin's discussion of crime is that while homicides have increased, overall violence has gone down slightly comparing the first seven months of 2021 to the same period in 2020. From January to July this year, there were 11,729 violent crimes compared with 12,262 in the same period in 2020, a 4% decrease, Austin police statistics show. The city counts assaults, rape, and murder and manslaughter as violent crimes.

Meanwhile, property crimes such as burglaries and theft, also are down about 4% during the same period, police statistics show.

Homicides and other gun violence are rising in several major U.S. cities, and Austin is not immune to the trend.

"I am alarmed with the increase in murders," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a recent interview with the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV. "And I think it has to be a concern for all of us. We have to do everything we can to understand what the causes of that might be and to address them."

APD interim chief points to gun access

Experts attribute multiple factors to dangerous crime spikes nationally, saying that identifying a single root cause is impossible. They point to issues, such as trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic, an explosive increase in guns on the street, and societal woes, including poverty and joblessness, as possible factors driving those in underserved communities into crime.

Interim Austin Police Department Chief Joe Chacon said he thinks the availability of guns have spurred homicides and other violence. Often, he said, guns are stolen from legal owners and either become murder weapons or are used in other crimes, underscoring the need for those who own firearms to safely store them.

"It is that greater ease for people who cannot legally own weapons to get them, and they are committing crimes with them," Chacon said. "I think that has a lot to do with it."

Austin police leaders say they are doing what they can with available resources. Officials have put a number of efforts in place, including a violence prevention program, to more closely track gun-related incidents.

"As we start to see these things happen, it affects the way the community feels about public safety," Chacon said. "People are paying attention, and they know these crimes are increasing. People want to feel safe when they go out — to the entertainment centers in our city, or out to dinner, or just leading their lives. We cannot as a public safety agency take any of that for granted."

In Austin, perception of safety suffered

Although police data do not support that it contributed to crime, for some, the sense of Austin being safe began shifting in 2019 over the battleground issue of homelessness, said Cary Roberts, executive director of the Greater Austin Crime Commission. The group was created in 1997 to help make sure law enforcement was meeting the community's needs.

Roberts said that when council members repealed the city's ban on public camping, allowing Austin's estimated 3,160 residents experiencing homelessness to shelter under overpasses and other public spaces, stories of encounters with those suffering from mental health disorders or aggressively panhandling became more common.

"Because of the repeated experiences of people downtown who were aggressively solicited or felt unsafe, those types of anecdotes spread," Roberts said.

Austin voters in May approved a referendum that restored the ban on public camping after a successful petition drive by the group Save Austin Now, a political action committee that says it is working to overturn council policies it believes are not aligned with most residents.

Although concerns about the homeless were primarily concentrated downtown, a growing sense of possible danger spilled into neighborhoods. It has prompted action among some groups that organizers say they hope will benefit residents — whether more violence actually comes to their streets or not.

Angela Garza is one of five chairs of the East MLK Combined Neighborhood Contact Team. She lives in a police patrol area covering most of East Austin that, as of July, had seen two more homicides this year compared with 2020 and 17 more assaults. But overall, the community is seeing 11% fewer violent crimes and a 5% decrease in property crime.

Garza said her group is trying to help address concerns about violence with positive, community-based approaches. They hope that by bolstering neighborhood relationships and developing a new layer of social support, people may avoid or turn away from crime. They have held a neighborhood yoga program in a park and have hosted clean-up events, for instance.

"What we are doing is accepting responsibility on our part, and we are working diligently toward positive successes," Garza said.

How Austin gun violence compares to other cities

According to FBI crime data in 2019 — the most recent year available — Austin's violent crime rate of 400 incidents per 100,000 residents ranked 28th among the 30 largest cities. Only El Paso and San Diego had lower violent crime rates. Austin also ranked near the bottom of the list in 2018 and 2017.

This week, Austin recorded its 61st homicide, a number that far exceeds the 48 deaths in 2020 — a year that also ushered the most homicides in decades. By comparison, Austin had 27 homicides by the end of July 2020.

"You are talking about rare events, which is good," said Sean Patrick Roche, an assistant criminal justice professor at Texas State University. "Sometimes, they come in bunches, and then there is nothing for a while. There is a very human tendency to want to give meaning to what could be random variation."

In 2020, Austin's homicide rate was about 4.6 per 100,000 residents, the highest it had been since 2010, when the city experienced its highest rate over the past two decades. By late June this year, the rate was 3.99 with about six months left in the year, and recently, it reached 6.3 using 2020 census data with 60 homicides. The current homicide rate is less than half of what it was in the mid-1980s, when Austin experienced a three-year surge in killings.

Authorities also are closely tracking the number of aggravated assaults, which rose 15% from January to June 2021 compared with the same period last year. Authorities say whether an assault victim lives or dies often depends on the speed of medical response and how close they are to a hospital.

According to the city's most recent gun violence report, issued this spring, crime related to guns — such as homicide, robbery and aggravated assault — increased the past five years, rising to 1,546 in 2020 from 689 in 2015. Similarly, gun offenses, such as unlawful carrying of a weapon and possession of a firearm by a felon, more than doubled, rising to 1,110 in 2020 from 503 in 2015. And reports of stolen guns increased to 1,016 from 864 in the same period.

The gun violence and homicides happening in Austin mirrors what is happening in other cities across the nation.

National FBI data of reported crime in 2020 won't be finalized until the fall. Experts hope it will provide more insight into what's driving the trends.

John K. Roman, a senior fellow in economics, justice and society at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, said the national "violence epidemic" emerged around the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic. Roman, who has done research across the country, is among scholars who attribute the increase to the pandemic.

He said cities, such as Austin, experiencing an increase in violence will require "an all hands on deck" approach. Efforts to curb violence must include police, but officers also must restore community trust to help solve and prevent crimes.

Warren C. Andresen, an assistant criminal justice professor at St. Edward's University, agreed that a restoration of working relationships between police and the community is essential to combating crime. Residents must feel comfortable with authorities to report suspicious activity, he said.

"People are right to be concerned (about crime), but there needs to be some sort of — rather than give the police a bunch of money — there needs to be some way that the way police are perceived and are actually healing their relationship with a lot of communities that are distrustful of them right now," he said.

Crime perceptions shape reform

Among some segments of Austin's population, the number of homicides and gun violence has fueled concerns that the Police Department lacks enough officers to curtail the violence. National scholars say evidence exists for both arguments: That the size of a police force directly correlates to crime, and that connection is not firmly established.

Several years before the current national conversation about policing in America, Austin officials hired several outside consultants who said the city needed more officers to prevent more crime and to maintain Austin's community policing goal.

Most recently, in 2015 and 2016, the city hired the California Matrix Consulting Group for $195,000 to design an "effective community policing model." The consultants recommended the city hire 100 more officers to ensure the department had enough officers to respond to calls, prevent crime and meet with residents about neighborhood concerns.

Under the proposal from Save Austin Now, the city would be forced to employ 2.0 officers per 1,000 residents. Right now, it has about 1.8 per 1,000. City officials estimate the measure would cost about $119 million a year.

But reformers say Austin does not necessarily need more officers. Instead, the city should make sure current officers are properly deployed and focused on crime-fighting efforts.

"We absolutely want to address the increase in violence and increase in crime. But if you look at all these big cities across the country, it is not associated with whether you have two cops per thousand or three cops per thousand," Council Member Greg Casar said. "We have to address the obvious causes. We have to address the fact that people have lost their jobs, the increase in family violence and the pandemic."

While some community leaders believe Austin must bolster its force to combat rising crime, activists and some local government leaders cite evidence from other cities that raise doubts about whether a department's size directly impacts crime.

"There is no proof that more officers are going to bring different outcomes," said Chas Moore, director of the nonprofit Austin Justice Coalition, which works on multiple issues, including police reform, to improve the lives of minorities. "People think more police means more safety and more police equals less crime. It's all this kind of ploy to keep the status quo."

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