Local NewsIllegal Guns, PR Bonds, Officer Staffing Are Main Contributors to Austin’s Increased Homicide Rate, Says Police Chief

A day after briefing the city on its all-time record homicide total, the Austin Police Department announced another homicide.
September 14, 2021
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Over the weekend, the City of Austin reached 60 total homicides, an all-time high for the state capital. 

Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon pointed to three main factors that he believes led to this increase: patrol vacancies roiling the department, offenders out of jail on personal recognizance (PR) bonds committing crimes, and the frequency at which illegally owned guns are out on the streets.

That 60th homicide came less than halfway through September with over three months remaining in the year. It’s nearly a three-quarter increase from 2020’s corresponding total.

“Unfortunately, I think this trend might continue — probably will continue, and we need to do everything we can as a community to stop that number from growing,” Chacon told press on Monday.

While homicides are up drastically, crimes against persons are down 5 percent overall and multiple categories, such as robberies, are down from their spikes during the throes of the pandemic in 2020.

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Of the 60 total homicides this year, 49 have been solved, according to Chacon. To help with the excess caseload, the department reassigned two additional detectives to the homicide unit, bringing the group’s total to 14. Chacon further said that they have “leads on several” of the remaining 11 incidents.

“Over the last couple of years,” Chacon stated, “we have seen a marked increase on the number of gun crime that is occurring in the city.”

“Interpersonal arguments are becoming deadly when guns are introduced to that environment.”

Chacon then pointed to the municipal judges’ liberal use of PR bonds, letting offenders out of jail with abandon. “We have a number of offenders that have previously been arrested and have been released out of jail on personal recognizance bonds and are recommitting violent offenses,” he continued.

Back in 2017, the Austin City Council passed a policy requiring municipal court judges to prioritize PR bonds for offenders deemed “indigent” — defined broadly as too poor to afford cash bail.

After the city council unscrupulously fired municipal judges that objected to the policy, the municipal court began issuing more and more PR bonds. One such instance occurred on January 3, 2020, when Dylan Woodburn — a repeat offender who had been let out on PR bond a month earlier for a burglary offense — stabbed three people, killing one, in an Austin restaurant.

Similar PR bond policies and crimes committed therein have also fallen under the spotlight in Houston. This year, the Texas legislature passed bail reform legislation restricting significantly the ability of judges to issue PR bonds on certain categories of violent or repeat offenders.

That legislation was pushed in direct response to the mounting bodies of evidence stacking up, victims killed by offenders out on bond.

In addition to those factors, Chacon also pointed to the department’s low staffing levels. As of last month, the department was 390 patrol officers shy of its staffing level two years ago and is bleeding 15 to 20 officers every month.

A large portion of the shortage is a direct result of the city’s $150 million budget cut and redirection in 2020 that reduced substantially the number of authorized patrol units. But the attrition existed before and has continued since that budget cut.

“Research shows that the number one deterrent for crime is officer presence, and with the fewer number of officers that I have on patrol engaging in proactive policing, there are more opportunities for people to commit these acts of violence,” Chacon added.

The department’s response time has increased one minute and 30 seconds from last year’s point of the budget cut. When asked Monday, Chacon told The Texan that current figures were not available.

A couple of months ago, Austin was operating at a staffing level of 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents. Voters in the city will consider this November a ballot proposition that would, among other things, establish a minimum staffing level of 2.0 officers per 1,000 residents.

The city council fought Save Austin Now, the group behind the proposition, by adopting their own ballot language, resulting in a lawsuit on which the Texas Supreme Court ruled primarily against the city except on one component — regardless of what Mayor Steve Adler claimed.

That proposition will be on the ballot in November for Austin voters and Adler used much of his 2021 State of the City address to lambast the proposition and its proponents as “misinformation.”

One additional factor that Chacon pointed to is the city’s population growth. “In 1984, Austin had 59 homicides and in that year the City of Austin’s population was 385,000. We’re currently sitting at almost 1 million people and … we have to continue to grow the department as the size of our city continues to grow,” he stated.

The city’s homicide rate today per capita is substantially lower than during the three decades prior to the 1990s crime decline. But the trend is still clear: homicides in Austin are continuing at an alarming rate for a city that is historically low-crime.

On Tuesday, the Austin Police Department reported the 61st homicide of the year.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is 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.

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