Austin Police ramp up efforts after crime rates increase

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(Graphic by Natasha Smith)

While Austin and the state of Texas are seeing an overall drop in crime, downtown Austin is experiencing the opposite, forcing local authorities to implement new strategies to deal with growing safety concerns.

Crime statistics for the downtown Austin area show a 24.8 percent overall increase in violent crime and a 0.5 percent increase in property crime from May 2011 to May 2012, according to the Austin Police Department. In response to this growing problem, APD is taking crime-preventative measures, including increasing the number of officers downtown, placing extra lighting in high-crime areas and requiring all downtown officers to carry a whistle to better gain pedestrian attention in emergency situations, APD Assistant Chief Raul Munguia said.

This represents a growing trend for the 78701 ZIP code, which encompasses the downtown area. Over the last five years, 78701 has seen a 49.7 percent increase in violent crime and a 20.5 percent increase in property crime. APD defines violent crime as homicide, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault. Property crime is defined as burglary, theft, motor-vehicle theft and arson.

Munguia said APD’s most recent measure to deal with growing downtown crime has been adding eight extra patrol officers to the downtown night shift. Along with those officers, an undetermined number of additional officers will be added this month for what Munguia calls the “back-to-school” spike. The spike refers to a period of annual increased violent and property crime in the downtown area during the months of August and September, when the summer is ending and students are returning to school.

“It almost seems like they want to have their fun before they have to hit the books again,” Munguia said.

For the 78701 ZIP code, APD statistics show a 35.2 percent increase in violent crime and a 16.3 percent increase in property crime from 2010 to 2011. Those numbers include a 62.5 percent rise in the number of robberies, a 22.6 percent rise in the number of aggravated assaults and an 11.9 percent rise in the number of motor-vehicle thefts.

In the UT area, the campus saw a 2.4 percent decrease in violent crime and a 6.1 percent decrease in property crime last year. The 78705 ZIP code, encompassing the areas west and north of campus, saw a 8.1 percent increase in violent crime and a 29.5 percent decrease in property crime during the same period.

Economics senior Kathy Garin has been working as a hostess at Iron Cactus, a Mexican bar and grill in downtown Austin, for the last year-and-a-half. Garin said she has definitely noticed increased crime downtown and has witnessed many incidents firsthand.

“It’s definitely something that needs to be taken care of,” she said.

Garin said out of all the criminal activity she’s seen while working downtown, there is one incident that stuck out to her.

“I literally saw someone get stabbed,” she said, referencing a stabbing on East Sixth Street.

Garin said while she does feel safe in her workplace, it is only because walls shield her from most violent Sixth Street crime.

Munguia said APD is well aware of the recent rises in crime, as they constantly monitor crime statistics from all parts of Austin in order to most effectively distribute police resources and implement new strategies.

“We call it intelligence-led policing.” he said. “For example, downtown and up around Eighth Street, we were seeing a lot of aggravated assaults, so we added extra officers and also temporary lighting. We soon saw that the lighting was very effective in deterring crime by watching the statistics from that area, prompting us to experiment with extra lighting in other areas as well.”

Munguia said APD is currently in talks with Austin Energy to permanently place extra lighting on East Eighth Street near Congress Avenue and temporary lighting in the area immediately west of Interstate Highway 35 between East Third and Fifth Streets, where there has been a rise in motor-vehicle thefts.

APD Lieutenant Patrick Connor said despite the rising crime levels, he believes the downtown area is safe for students as long as they remain alert at all times.

“The key is to be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “Stay with your friends, and control your alcohol intoxication. Don’t let yourself be caught off guard.”

Connor said the highest level of crime occurs downtown between the hours of 2 and 3 a.m. when bars are closing, and people are beginning to make their way home in large numbers.

He said he also advises students to avoid leaving valuables visible in their vehicles and to park in a safe location — car thefts are up 12.2 percent city-wide from this time last year.

Of all downtown crime issues, Connor said the largest growing problem is the increasing number of “punch and run” robberies.

“That was the biggest trend that we have seen in the downtown area — intoxicated individuals walking alone to find their friends, their hotel, a cab or something like that, and then being attacked from behind for their cell phone,” he said.