Local NewsOn Night Patrol With Austin Police: A Glimpse Into The City’s Homelessness Crisis and the People Trying to Keep Austin Safe

Our Austin homelessness reporter accompanied a police officer on the night shift to observe what they experience on a nightly basis.
February 20, 2020
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“Hey, you here for the ride-along?” a friendly voice queried, springing from a face partially extending above a dividing wall.

Austin Police Department’s downtown headquarters. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

The nameplate read “Canche” followed by an ID number.

“Hi, I’m Nate. You’ll be riding with me tonight,” he said as a hand extended for an introductory shake.

From there, Officer Nathan Canche and I zig-zagged down a couple of hallways and up a few floors of the Austin Police Department’s 8th Street headquarters to the meeting room in which patrols gather before venturing out into the dark Austin night.

Canche, I later found out, is a former Navy man who worked on helicopters and planes. After a 20-year career, he retired and pursued the career he always wanted: becoming a police officer. 

The Texan Mug

Canche stressed that this was always something he was certain he wanted to do. Much less certain is he of his beloved San Antonio Spurs’ effort to replace Kawhi Leonard — the former Spurs star who moved on a few years ago, relegating San Antonio’s NBA team to seeming mediocrity.

Like the Spurs’ colors, last night was especially dark as the sky rained down at rates varying from a drizzle to a shower.

Before heading out, Sgt. Gary Shaw briefed the group of officers patrolling the “George” sector that night — which covers the bulk of downtown. He complimented the group for their quality stop rate, a stat judging the officers not by how many stops they make, but rather by how many of their stops yield a serious charge.

“That’s the right way to police,” Sgt. Shaw emphasized, pointing to a prioritization of eliminating serious threats as opposed to ticketing every jaywalker or heavy-foot driver.

The group has been so successful of late they have even apprehended six illegally-possessed firearms since December — a high amount for one patrol group in one sector.

Other discussions included frustration over bond issuance by judges both local and across the country. For example, New York state just eliminated the use of cash bonds. Every APD officer I spoke to expressed their frustration over lenient bonds issued by Austin’s courts.

In 2017, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance directing the municipal court to prioritize “PR bonds” (bonds with no cash leverage) for indigent offenders. That directive has since led to numerous violent and repeat offenders being let out of jail, who sometimes have then committed another offense — such as the case of Freebirds stabbing suspect, Dylan Woodburn.

That ordinance remains in effect.

After 25 minutes, the sergeant dismissed the officers and the group departed. Upon securing a vehicle, the safety checks began. About a half-hour later, our checks were complete.

“This goes a lot quicker with two people,” Canche matter-of-factly stated — a point to which I could not argue, as I was no help whatsoever in completing the regular protocols. But the measure of checks an officer must go through before departure illustrate the lengths required for protecting themselves in an increasingly hostile environment.

Austin police vehicle. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

In all, the car’s electronic system must be synced with the computer, dashboard and body cameras, and microphone; the lights and PA system must be checked; cabin firearms must be appropriately unloaded, loaded, and locked into position; as well as any other diagnostics that must be done.

This is all done as a safety protocol — a more cynical (but not incorrect) person might call it a prudent CYA (cover your a**) protocol. If one of these bases is not properly covered, it could be used to throw a potential case out in court on a technicality — something which is a feature of our innocent-until-proven-guilty justice system.

Yet, as many officers, lawyers, or judges will tell you, putting up with a little hassle on the front end is more than worth it.

After completion, off we went, with a shotgun and a rifle locked in position between us.

Immediately, our unit responded to a call about a possible CTN violation — or a “criminal trespassing notice.” CTNs are frequently used when homeless individuals disrupt the operation of a business on the business’ property. They prohibit the individual from returning to the given property — essentially a strong warning and if violated one that will result in arrest.

The subject of that call had been given a CTN earlier that day at the Driskill Hotel. He returned later that night, causing a scene — thus prompting hotel security to call law enforcement.

Rambling incessantly, the man was handcuffed and loaded into the backseat of our patrol car. While Canche finished recording the necessary info and as I conversed with another officer about his favorite college football team (the Wisconsin Badgers), the arrestee began yelling at the officers…and me, whom he first thought was also an officer.

“He received a CTN earlier today and violated it, and that means he’s going to jail,” Canche remarked as he turned the car jailward.

Austin Police Department headquarters on 8th Street. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

The entryway for the jail is marked by a large, green metal door which oddly folds open like a pantry door — outside a voice over the intercom asked if we had in custody “an unruly female.”

Canche informed the booking officers we did not and then turned to me to say, “that probably means the chair will be brought out.”

Indeed, a few minutes later, another patrol car pulled in and jail officials rolled out a restraining wheelchair. A young female adult was loaded onto the chair, kicking and screaming, who had a large gash on her forehead with blood slowly streaming from it.

The arrestee, I was informed, had bashed her head against something in the backseat of the patrol car on her own accord.

To enter the booking facility, not only are no weapons allowed (even among police) but phones are also prohibited. A second, smaller thick metal door opened to a bustling chamber of corrections officers and alleged offenders going through the extensive, back and forth booking protocol. Our stay in the facility became quite long since the medical examiners were short-staffed.

Before being booked, every individual deemed to be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs must go through a medical exam. If their condition is deemed serious enough, they are transferred to a hospital unless moving them would be a health hazard.

While there, I spoke to a retired police officer who works overtime helping the facility process DWI suspects. When he started, the APD consisted of about four hundred employees in total. Today, it has grown to nearly five times that. When asked how much of the booking facility’s influx are drug-influenced or mentally ill individuals, he said, “Oh, it’s got to be close to 90 percent.”

Sure enough, in the offloading entry room, nearly all occupants seemed to be exhibiting those types of behaviors. Notably, a few were not and almost all the individuals in the facility’s central construct — dubbed “the pit” — were quietly and peacefully going through the booking protocols. 

In all, probably between 25 and 30 individuals were processed throughout my time observing from a back corner.

They watched in awe as others struggled intensely against the booking procedure — sometimes going limp, forcing officers to drag them to separate holding cells while screaming at the top of their lungs. For a place so reliant on rules and procedures, the booking facility was a hectic and raucous place and not for a lack of trying by corrections officers to maintain some semblance of order.

Eventually, our arrestee had been processed and we continued on with our night.

Austin police car at a traffic stop. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Upon leaving the jail, Canche huffed, “What the heck is he doing?”

Past the red light in front of us, a white Rolls Royce rolled towards us on 7th Street — a one-way street. On the lights went, and the car was pulled over. The man behind the wheel told Canche he had been confused by the rain and darkness.

Canche smelled no alcohol on the man’s breath and thus issued him a warning.

Usually at some time before midnight, the patrol squad groups up near 6th Street to monitor the bar-hoppers and socialites. But just as we arrived, a call came in of a “down” person.

One of Austin’s High Activity Location Observation (H.A.L.O.) cameras had spotted a woman lying still on the ground on Neches Street. Indeed, she was in a sad state — not moving, drooling uncontrollably, and barely responding.

Canche was able to find out her name and that she had overdosed on “K2” (sometimes called “Kush”). K2 is a synthetic type of marijuana and often contains various amounts of dangerous — and sometimes deadly — substances that are not found in naturally grown marijuana.

The officers stated K2 is rampant in Austin. One example highlighted to me by hospital staff occurred in 2016. A couple targeted homeless individuals distributing large amounts of K2 outside of the ARCH shelter, causing lots of overdoses. 

Police officers tend to K2 overdose victim between 6th and 7th Streets. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

At our scene, paramedics were called and the woman was taken to the hospital. After running her name through the system, Canche realized a “BOLO” (be-on-the-lookout) had been put out on the woman’s file. Except this BOLO was not regarding a crime she committed, but rather a crime committed against her. 

Last October, APD highlighted statistics showing a five percent increase in homeless-on-homeless violent crime from July through September 2019 compared with the same period the year before.

It turned out that she had been sexually assaulted on Valentine’s Day and police had been unable to locate her to see if she wanted to press charges. A suspect had been identified.

So, Officer Canche accompanied the woman to the hospital — at which he stayed for multiple hours before the case detective was able to arrive and confirm her desire to press charges. “It’s the right thing to do,” Canche told me of his decision to wait instead of embarking back out on more calls.

While at the hospital we learned the woman was a frequent visitor, usually for K2-related emergencies. A nurse added that some nights there are a half-dozen or more of these K2 overdoses, but last night became even more serious than that.

After some time waiting and talking to a Travis County Crisis Intervention Team member — a program that handles individuals with mental illness and directs them to appropriate services — nurses became visibly alarmed. A radio call had just come in detailing two severe burn victims.

Officer Nate Canche discusses the overdose victim’s case file with a Travis County Crisis officer. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

According to officers, a propane tank had exploded in a South Austin homeless camp, causing third-degree burns to transient individuals. About 30 minutes later, the two burn victims were rolled into the hospital — one a woman with no visible burns at a passing glance and a man whose left arm a sheet of burnt skin draped.

It was a disturbing scene, but just another day on the job for the police and medical professionals coping with Austin’s homelessness issues.

Sometime later, the detective arrived and Officer Canche was relieved of his post. We clambered back into the vehicle and drove back towards headquarters. The night shift was coming to a close.

On the short drive back, we discussed again the job Canche and his colleagues do every day — often a thankless one, sometimes a hated one. Verbal abuse, and sometimes worse, comes with the gig.

Frustrations, too, come with the territory. “My wife probably gets annoyed by my venting, but seeing the things we do every day, you need some sort of outlet,” he added.

Every move had to be documented — even something so small as opening the car door would trigger the body camera on. Even if a trivial occurrence, it still had to be documented as a “non-event” in the log. Scrutiny is an unavoidable part of the job, which makes diligence even more essential.

After experiencing some — and really only a small snapshot — of what Canche and his fellow officers do day in and day out, it’s understandable on the need to have an outlet in which these men and women can cope with what they experience.

Despite all that, however, the one descriptor that comes to mind for Canche after our night on patrol is a “Happy Warrior.”

“I love my job,” he said matter-of-factly. 

After spending 10 hours to see what exactly his job entailed, it was a testament not only to him, but also to the caliber of those who choose to put on a uniform to keep their communities safe.

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Brad Johnson

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 watching and quoting Monty Python productions.

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