Austin needs 14% more patrol officers, research finds

A new study recommended the city hire at least 108 more officers to better respond to high priority calls

By Tony Plohetski
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin Police Chief Joe Chacon indicated Tuesday that he likely will ask the City Council to approve funding for dozens of new patrol positions after a new report found the city needs more officers to quickly respond to the most serious emergencies.

The study, commissioned by the nonprofit Greater Austin Crime Commission, found that the patrol ranks should increase by at least 108 officers, roughly 14%, to get average response times to the highest priority calls down to no more than six minutes and 30 seconds. Within that window, researchers said, officers are more likely to successfully make an arrest or recover a gun.

Austin police cadets participate in a commencement exercise in May 2019. A new study says that the Austin Police Department's patrol ranks should be increased by at least 108 officers.
Austin police cadets participate in a commencement exercise in May 2019. A new study says that the Austin Police Department's patrol ranks should be increased by at least 108 officers. (Tony Plohetski)

"This model will be one of several tools to help us achieve the right balance for the department and the community," Chacon said. "We can't lose sight of the most important task we have, and that is to keep the community safe."

The Police Department has funding for 774 patrol officers, but dozens of those positions remain unfilled.

The number of officers Austin employs — and the mission those officers perform — has been the source of an ongoing community debate in the 18 months since George Floyd's murder sparked a nationwide move toward police reform.

The department saw historically high numbers of officers resign or retire in 2021, with 17 more set to leave this month. The staffing problems were compounded after the city delayed several planned cadet classes to retool its police academy.

At the same time, the city has seen a substantial increase in gun violence and homicides as an epidemic of violence swept cities across the nation.

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In November, Austin voters resoundingly rejected a proposition that would have established minimum staffing levels for the Police Department — at least 2.0 officers per 1,000 residents — and set minimum time periods that officers must spend engaging with the community. If that proposal had passed, the city estimated it would have had to hire 403 to 885 more officers in the next five years. But some city officials, including Mayor Steve Adler, have said that they agree the city needs more officers.

The study — by Giovanni Circo, a University of New Haven assistant criminology professor, and Sean Patrick Roche, a Texas State University assistant criminology professor — considered only patrol staffing levels. But Chacon said researchers plan to conduct a similar study for other Police Department functions, including criminal investigations, in the coming months.

Over the years, various studies have found that Austin needed more officers, particularly as the city has grown.

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At the same time, however, reformers have contended that officials could reduce the number of officers needed by, for example, assigning civilians to respond to low-level calls, such as taking reports after burglaries when a suspect has left the scene.

Last fall, Chacon began doing so, and he said Tuesday that he plans to keep that practice in place.

Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, said officials should continue to examine other efforts to combat crime and societal issues without necessarily adding more officers.

"There is the, 'What are we doing to try to prevent bad things that people need emergencies for?'" Harris said. "Obviously, if we are taking preventive measures, we can reduce the number of emergency calls and the officers needed for that response."

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