Council members to allocate funds for public safety during springtime festivals

Forrest Milburn

As the city’s spring festival season draws in more and more attendees every year, Austin City Council members acted on calls to address public safety demands at its regular meeting Thursday.

The approved resolution directs city manager Marc Ott to look at the allocation of additional funds for public safety needs, such as increased off-duty officers in downtown, during the spring festival season. The resolution passed amidst heightened concerns about public safety in the wake of a 2014 drunk driving incident during South by Southwest.

Councilwoman Leslie Pool, a member of the Public Safety Committee, said she sponsored the resolution to see if she could work with the Austin Police Association to adequately fund public safety.

“This is a standard thing we do every year for the springtime festival season when there’s an increased number of activities going on, some of them city-sanctioned, some of them not,” Pool said. “We always have additional need for police out in those parts of town [during the festivals].”

According to the city, the spring festival season lasts from March 10 to 20 and includes SXSW-related activities.

Before Thursday’s decision, officers were frequently told to abandon their posts in their assigned communities and report to downtown in order to fulfill need of additional manpower, according to Andrew Romero, Austin Police Association vice president. Officers, with some coming from other jobs around Austin, worked 24,000 hours in traffic and code enforcement, 911 responses and crowd control, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Romero said the city should spend from the $2 million budget surplus to utilize off-duty officers through overtime pay while allowing other on-duty officers to still work at their regular posts.

“Without funding in the police budget to cover that need, those officers have to come from somewhere.” Romero said. “If you’re trying to introduce new resources, then you have to have funding to bring in officers who are not working to come in and work when you need a public safety resource.”

Pool said she suggested possibly using sheriffs and constables to help alleviate the need for additional police in downtown. According to the Austin American-Statesman, 35 to 45 state troopers were deployed to help out during this past year’s festival. The festival organizers do partially supplement security costs, according to Pool.

Evert Keller, a UT alumnus who has attended SXSW for multiple years, said he thinks public safety investments are an important step to keeping festival attendees safe, but said there needs to be a balance between public safety and fun.

“You have to think that there are ways to do it, strategies that they could employ to not treat it like a riot is about to tip off,” Keller said. “There has to be a way to set up a system to keep people safe without putting the jackboot in everybody’s good time.”

Per the resolution, Ott will address the Council with funding information about public safety in December.