Over drinking, drugs and an increase of criminal activity downtown at popular nightlife destinations, such as Sixth Street, has caused police patrolling those areas to use more force, according to a detective with the Austin Police Department.
Kenneth Casaday, APD detective and president of the Austin Police Association, which represents APD officers in legal issues and labor unions, said the increase of activity in the entertainment district has caused problems for police.
“The cops who patrol this area are dealing with those who overdrink, the chronically homeless and drug abuse such as K2,” Casady said. “This causes the officers [on Sixth Street] to use more force because of the environment they are in.”
APD officer Hank Aguilar, who has served on the Austin patrol for four years, said fights happen on a nightly basis downtown. Sometimes streets have to be closed, or mounted force, officers on horses, are called in to help the situation.
“Usually when [mounted patrol] show up, a lot of people start to move away,” Aguilar said. “What happens is crowds start to form, and when they [do], they can form as many as 10 [people] deep.”
In terms of dispersing crowds or fights, Aguilar said officers on the regular or walking beat have the option to use pepper spray, a taser or a baton to push people back.
A video was posted online of an incident on Sixth Street, showing an APD officer mounted on a horse taking a person’s phone and another officer pepper-spraying a bystander. After the video went viral on June 7, APD immediately responded by launching an investigation into the situation.
Casady said this incident involving use of force hopefully shed light on what typically happens at night on Sixth Street. When a situation is happening where officers are dealing with a disturbance, he said, people need to follow orders for their own safety and those involved in the moment.
While there are concerns about the drinking and large crowds that lead to incidents, Bob Woody, Sixth Street business owner, said the area needs the police walking beat because of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless shelter (ARCH) on Seventh Street. Woody said a criminal element exists within the homeless population.
“Seventh and Red River [streets], one block over, is the known drug area of Austin,” Woody said. “It is in a bad location, and it would be much easier to have the police patrolling through there.”
Aguilar said the police deal with intoxication and drug use but there are also other things to worry about.
“As far as problems with them, it goes from panhandling, begging, being under the influence, theft in the area and loitering in front of businesses,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar is not aware of discussions in the department about relocating the homeless shelter but said the officers on patrol accept it is something they must deal with. Casady said if plans were in place to move the shelter it would help the area.
Cassaday said the department is looking to increase its budget to add more officers, but, over the last several years, they have not filled their cadet classes. This does not mean the City is doing a bad job, he said, but the national image of officers recently is hurting them.
Woody said officers are still needed to keep the area safe.
“If we knowingly don’t try to make something safe, you just can’t do that,” Woody said. “If you think you are creating something unsafe, you generate a liability and you are responsible. We know we need the walking beat on Sixth.”