Austin Police revert to decentralized traffic enforcement approach

Wednesday, April 5, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

The Austin Police Department’s staffing shortages are leading it to take a decentralized approach to traffic enforcement, the city’s Public Safety Commission learned during a traffic enforcement and management update on April 3.

Most of the crashes that happen on Austin roads every year occur on highways such as Interstate 35, U.S. Highway 183, and Ben White Boulevard. APD’s Highway Enforcement Command is in charge of several initiatives, which include targeted enforcement in high-crash areas.

These programs are overtime opportunities for officers, who focus on aggressive driving, speeding, driving while intoxicated, seatbelt violations, and more. According to Lt. Will White, who is part of APD’s Highway Enforcement Command (HEC), said the number of officers available for the programs has recently decreased due to the department’s overall staffing shortages.

White said the HEC previously served as the centralized component for on-duty proactive traffic enforcement by the entire department, because it had a Motors Unit, a DWI Unit, and a Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit.

However, APD’s staffing woes required all but five of the commercial vehicle enforcement unit members to go back on patrol. That means the city is currently operating under a decentralized approach to traffic enforcement and management, White said.

In 2022, APD made 12,889 traffic stops and spent a total of 10,109 hours on-scene. Of those, more than 99 percent were officer-initiated, classified in the lowest priority class, and did not involve response to resistance.

White said when he started, there were more than 126 Highway Enforcement Command officers. There are currently 26 officers within the command.

“We don’t have the proactive enforcement like we did have,” White said. “We’re no longer a proactive command as highway enforcement was. So now we’re just a reactive command. We’ve got our vehicular homicide unit left, and we just respond to the fatalities.”

White said the command still has its team to address hit-and-runs. Two officers remain in the DWI Unit, but can only handle impaired driving investigations.

“But all they’re doing is follow-up on DWI cases,” White said. “So they’ll do search warrants on blood, and it’s only a sergeant and a detective that do that particular unit at this point.”

The command also still has a vehicle abatement unit that addresses junked or nuisance vehicles abandoned on the side of the road.

White said that anecdotally he has heard residents feel lack of patrol presence has resulted in bad driving behaviors.

“We’re seeing a lot of the aggressive driving behaviors, and the lack of ability to enforce the laws or even maintain that visibility to deter the bad driving behaviors,” White said.

Last week, Mayor Kirk Watson cited staffing issues when he announced a partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety to supplement city patrols. Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said the DPS presence would be “generally” addressing violent crime, but also “traffic-related enforcement and traffic deaths” in a supportive role. The Austin American-Statesman reported on Tuesday that so far DPS is averaging 300 traffic stops and 16 arrests per day.

Photo by Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, MD, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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