Austin City Suffers With Officer Shortage So State Troopers Hop In To Assist

The state’s top law enforcement agency will beef up its presence in Austin and help local police handle violent crime and traffic incidents, city and state officials said Monday.

DPS troopers stand outside the Capitol during the summer of 2020 (Photo by John Anderson)
DPS troopers stand outside the Capitol during the summer of 2020 (Photo by John Anderson)

The move — agreed upon by Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — is a dramatic response as the city’s police department struggles with persistent vacancies in its officer ranks, a problem in virtually every major police department in the country. Austin has also had problems with long response times to emergency calls.

“My top priority is that the people of Austin both are safe and feel safe,” Watson said at a joint press conference Monday afternoon with Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw. “I also want to be sure that our police officers feel respected and have the resources they need to do their job. This is a recognition that the police department needs more staff and we have a partner that can assist us.”

Details about the arrangement were scarce. Officials would not say Monday how many officers DPS would supply but said troopers will generally have more presence in Austin and back up local police in emergencies if needed.

“This is a good day,” Chacon said. “This is a major step forward in increasing public safety.”

How long the arrangement will last is also unknown. City officials view the partnership as a stopgap measure as they try to fill the city’s more than 200 vacancies. Watson said DPS’ assistance will last “as long as we feel like there’s a need and it’s serving a good purpose for the citizens.”

The move comes more than a year after voters rejected a ballot measure to mandate that the city fill vacancies and employ a certain number of officers per resident. Detractors said the measure would spur a huge run-up in city spending and lead to budget cuts for libraries, parks and other city services.

The agreement also comes as DPS deals with its own staffing shortages, which McCraw acknowledged Monday. The agency has more than 500 trooper vacancies.

The partnership represents a rare cordial moment between city leaders and the state. Austin within the last decade has often been a target of Abbott and state GOP leaders as they aim to assert their dominance over Texas’ largest, more liberal cities.

The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2021 to prevent cities and counties from cutting their police budgets, largely in response to Austin City Council’s decision to cut $150 million from its police department’s budget. The cuts eliminated 150 officer positions, canceled a trio of cadet classes and moved some police functions to other city agencies. The City Council reversed those cuts the next year.

Abbott has routinely bashed Austin on policing matters, throwing together a statewide task force on “street takeovers” last month after videos circulated on social media of drivers doing donuts and burnouts in intersections around the capital city. Three years ago, the governor ordered DPS to ramp up patrols in and around downtown Austin and near the University of Texas campus in the wake of a fatal stabbing and a fight between two people who were homeless.

Watson, who campaigned on improving the relationship between the city and state, said the idea for the partnership arose organically out of a recent meeting with Patrick — and emphasized that DPS will support APD, not supplant it. Austin police officers will still respond to the “vast majority” of 911 calls, Chacon said.

“This is what happens when you can have a good relationship between your local government and your state Capitol, when you serve the same constituents,” Watson said.

To Chris Harris, Austin Justice Coalition policy director, the move unduly gives state officials ammunition to argue that Austin can’t handle policing matters on its own — and makes it more difficult to hold law enforcement officers accountable if they engage in misconduct.

Past efforts by DPS to boost patrols in Texas cities haven’t gone so well, Harris said. Abbott deployed DPS troopers to Dallas in 2019 to help the Dallas Police Department with a big spike in violent crime. Weeks into that deployment, DPS troopers had stopped more than 12,000 drivers — prompting city leaders to try to stop the agency’s patrols amid concerns that they were targeting people of color on the city’s south side. City police officials said at the time that DPS had helped put a dent in the city’s violent crime.“It’s a complete sellout of the city,” Harris said. “It’s dangerous.”