Editor’s note: This story is part of The Daily Texan’s coverage of how coronavirus concerns are affecting UT-Austin. Read the rest of our coverage here.
The Austin and UT Police Departments are implementing operational changes starting Tuesday due to the new coronavirus pandemic.
Both departments will continue to respond to emergency 911 calls where life and property are at risk, but reports for lower priority calls will be done over the phone or online to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“These changes are intended to operationalize the best practices put forth by the Centers for Disease Control to mitigate the disease impact while still maintaining our public safety responsibilities,” APD said in an online statement.
UTPD plans to do over-the-phone reporting for nonemergency 911 calls for the duration of the pandemic, UTPD Chief David Carter said.
“If a bicycle theft just occurred, then we take the call by phone, but we also dispatch an officer to check the area,” Carter said. “The officer will patrol around the area to see if the suspect is still there, but the officer simply won’t make contact with the individual who made the call.”
UTPD and APD will both have officers wear protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, when engaging with the public, Carter said. UTPD will also disinfect patrol cars and bicycles after each shift to minimize the spread of infection, he said.
APD will no longer respond to car crashes where no one was injured and all vehicles are drivable, according to a Tuesday press release. Both UTPD and APD will also discourage enforcement of nonhazardous traffic violations.
“Minor traffic situations involving an equipment violation may be something that is addressed after the pandemic,” Carter said. “(Officers) are basically there to respond to emergencies and to reassure the public. They’re not necessarily looking at those minor kinds of issues.”
Travis County judges have been releasing some inmates charged with criminal offenses to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the county jail, according to a report from the Austin American-Statesman. Carter said criminal investigations will continue but the warrant may be set aside until after the pandemic in nonviolent cases.
“It is important to say any crimes that occur during an emergency period such as this are likely to have a higher penalty attached to the crime,” Carter said.
Administrative employees for UTPD will be asked to work from home to reduce the number of people in the police building, Carter said.
“It’s very important that people remember the police are, in fact, still here,” Carter said. “Officers will be patrolling around the area to make sure that people understand the police are here, and they’re not gone. The police didn’t close because of the pandemic.”