So far through 2021, the total of 26 murders is already more than half last year’s entire total of 47. And from January through April, this year’s total so far is over 53 percent higher than in 2020 — which saw a crime spike of its own.
The triple homicide over the weekend presumed to have been committed by former Travis County sheriff’s deputy turned fugitive, Stephen Nicholas Broderick, Austin’s April increased the murder total to 12.
Compared with the 2019 numbers, the 2021 increase jumps even higher to 189 percent.
Historically a low-crime city, Austin suffered a spike in 2020 along with many cities across the country attributed largely to the pandemic and the early summer civil unrest that wracked the country.
Through February, total crimes against persons were down four percent compared with the same period in 2020.
Because Austin is such a historically low-crime city, modest raw number increases can generate an outsized sway on percentages. But the broader body of work since the pandemic really hit last year, and the corresponding crime spike, illustrates a serious and growing trend.
In an emailed statement, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Texan, “Ensuring the highest level of public safety is the most important thing local governments do, but that only happens when we have everyone at the table engaging in honest conversations that rely on real data and facts. Homicides are up in Austin, and we need to address that fact, but that’s also happening in Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and dozens of big cities.”
A Wall Street Journal analysis from August 2020 found that violent crime rates were increasing in most of America’s largest cities and Austin topped its list in percentage increase of homicides.
“Speaking to national crime data reporting, Austin’s interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon has shown Austin remains one of the safest large cities, both in Texas and nationally,” Adler added.
“What we have seen in cities across the country, though, is a rise in violence due to the health and economic challenges associated with the pandemic and an increase in the number of guns, and that is exactly why our City is working to address issues at the root of crime. We have a moral imperative to be bold and continue our work to reimagine public safety.”
Lurking in the foreground is the city’s transformation of its police department’s role in the community. The city council approved a $150 million budget cut last August and continues to suffer staffing shortages.
That included an initial termination of three cadet classes, which have since been given the green light to restart but have yet to begin.
Renae Eze, spokesperson for Governor Greg Abbott’s office, told The Texan, “Austin’s murder rate is skyrocketing, yet they continue to pursue their reckless agenda to defund the very police force that protects our communities from such lawlessness.”
“This is exactly why the Governor made defunding cities that defund police an emergency item this legislative session. We will not let Texas cities follow the lead of cities like Portland, Seattle, and Minneapolis in defunding the police and inviting crime and chaos into our communities.”
The Austin Police Department (APD) currently has 1.08 officers per 100,000 residents — well below the 2.5 per 100,000-target often used as a benchmark. There are currently 116 total vacancies and APD’s staffing level is below its 2010 amount despite having double the population.
City management is also in the process of hiring a permanent police chief to replace Brian Manley who retired last month after years of tension with the city council bent on fundamentally changing its police department and public safety policy more broadly.
Last week, a coalition of officials and activists launched a concerted effort to oppose the city council’s public safety-related actions.
No small part of the broader public safety equation is the city’s lingering homeless problem and its policy to allow camping and laying on virtually any public property. The policy drummed up enough displeasure for a successful ballot initiative to put reinstatement of the pre-July 2019 ban on the May 1 ballot.
The state legislature is also considering its own legislation to ban camping and laying on public ground statewide.
For four years now, Austin’s municipal courts have been operating under a city ordinance to prioritize low- and non-cash bail. Since, there have been instances of repeat and absconded offenders being released on personal recognizance bond who then go and commit other, more violent offenses.
The capital city is the epicenter of Texas’ public safety debate and it is sure to rage further as city and state officials butt heads.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.