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Austin Police Department seeks to have civilians, not officers, respond to some calls

Interim Chief Joe Chacon hinted at the proposal Wednesday during an announcement that he would be the city's next chief.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin police are implementing a plan that would call for civilians to respond to some calls instead of uniformed officers. The new policy is set to take effect on Friday, Oct. 1.

Interim Chief Joe Chacon hinted at the proposal last week during an announcement that he would be the city's next chief, pending council approval. He also addressed it during an interview with Senior Reporter Tony Plohetski. 

The Austin Police Department said the change will "provide some relief," since APD is experiencing a staffing shortage. By asking community members not to call 911, officers can better focus on incidents that threaten life or property "in a timely manner."

The decision was made after a review of APD's COVID-19 safety protocols and a recommendation from the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. 

“These response changes will ensure that we will bring all of our resources to bear, including officers and technical experts, to respond to all situations as appropriate,” Chacon said in a press release. “We recognize the staffing challenges our department faces, and we are trying to be innovative in how we respond.”

On Friday, Sept. 24, the department issued a statement:

The Austin Police Department (APD) regularly reviews response policies and procedures to ensure APD prioritizes calls with an immediate threat to life or property over non-emergency calls for service. As a result of a recent review of APD’s patrol COVID mitigation protocols initiated in May 2020, recent staffing challenges and aligning with the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force patrol response recommendations, APD will change call routing and response for non-emergency calls for service effective October 1, 2021.

APD urges people to use iReportAustin.com or call 3-1-1 to report crimes which are no longer in progress, when the suspect(s) are no longer on scene or in sight and when there is no immediate threat to life or property. Please continue to call 9-1-1 for emergencies when there is a threat to life or property.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 29, Chacon said the community should call 311 for the following types of calls: 

  • Animal services
  • Attempted theft of property
  • Burglary when the suspect is no longer on the property
  • Crashes between vehicles that do not require a tow, caused no injuries and both drivers have proof of insurance and a license and neither was driving impaired  
  • COVID-19 violations
  • Verbal disputes
  • Prostitution
  • Suspicious person/vehicle
  • Vandalism
  • Theft

However, if there is a current threat to life or property, Chacon said when in doubt, individuals should call 911.

“Safety is our department’s number one priority,” Chacon said. “APD will still respond to emergency situations and thoroughly investigate crimes reported to the Department.”

Chacon said 311 is also experiencing a staffing shortage. He asked the Austin community to be patient.

RELATED: Austin wants to be a model of modern policing, but the future remains unclear

Save Austin Now said the change in the routing of non-emergency calls is "unimaginable." The political action committee is working to pass Proposition A, a police staffing initiative. 

“Austin is at least 300 police officers short of where it was when the Austin police budget was cut by one-third, with massive reallocations sent to social programs," the group's co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek, said in a statement. "This has undeniably made our city less safe."

Prop A would require APD to staff a minimum of two officers per 1,000 people and require an additional 40 hours of post-cadet class training hours per year. 

"Today’s announcement should be an urgent wake-up call to every Austin resident and taxpayer who must demand that we become a safe city for everyone by voting for Prop A on Nov. 2, with early voting beginning Oct. 18," the statement said. "By passing Prop A we can ensure adequate police staffing, increase community policing, double police training and enact police reforms.”

Many have spoken out against Prop A, including several elected officials. The City's financial officer has also outlined two scenarios for its potential impacts.

As the KVUE Defenders have reported in its police reform series "Reforming the Force," the department has lost dozens of officers during the past year. Meanwhile, city council members suspended the police academy to alter the curriculum, leaving no new rookies to replace them

Reformers also have advocated for non-officers to respond to certain calls, saving uniformed officers for emergencies. 

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