Thursday, July 24, 2008

With safety costs rising, why won't Austin use new citation authority for low-level offenses?

Since the Austin PD makes up so much of the city's budget and is driving cost increases and service cuts, you'd think the City Council and the Austin Police Department would welcome new authority from the Legislature to save money by giving citations instead of arresting for low-level misdemeanors.

Indeed, especially given high gasoline costs and a limited number of officers, one of the best ways to save money and maximize public safety resources is to reduce the number of unnecessary trips to the jail, which saves gas and keeps the maximum possible number of officers out on the streets for enforcement. The Texas Legislature passed HB 2391 last year giving police discretion to give citations for more low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors including marijuana possession, though officers can still make arrests if they think the situation warrants it.

But while the Travis County Sheriff's Office has embraced the idea, Austin PD Chief Art Acevedo backed off his initial enthusiasm for the idea because Austin juts into two other counties besides Travis - Williamson and Hays - which decided not to use the new authority. Essentially, then, Austin PD let its more conservative neighbors drag its policy down to the lowest common denominator, eschewing authority they clearly possess under the new law.

A new local group called Keep Austin Safe formed recently to encourage APD to change this policy. Austin attorney Ann del Llano authored a report on their behalf assessing the impact implementing HB 2391 could have on the city budget and public safety. (Conflict alert: Grits is listed on their site's supporter list, and I worked closely with Ms. Del Llano for several years at the Texas ACLU.)

For starters, 37% of Austin PD arrests are eligible to receive citations instead, according to the report. That's a big number - nearly 16,000 trips to the jail each year. While giving officers discretion wouldn't mean all those trips were abated, if half of them received citations that would make a significant difference - a reduction of around 22 trips to the jail per day with all the expense and extra time that implies.

The report identifies racial disparities in arrest rates as an argument for changing the policy:
For the optional Class A and B arrests, Blacks are over 3 times more likely to be arrested than non-Blacks. Though Blacks and non-Blacks use marijuana at the same rate, Black people in Austin are over 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession of a personal use quantity of marijuana.
But similarly disparate ratios exist everywhere in the justice system and I don't think this policy can be blamed in particular for them. Not only will disparities still exist if the policy's changed, they might even worsen if officers get to decide who to arrest (depending on how they use their discretion).

More compelling to me is the public safety critique - particularly arguments about seldom-discussed opportunity costs. Del Llano writes that:
Austin police are not solving our serious crimes. APD only clears 42% of Part 1 Violent Crimes and 12% of Part 1 Property Crimes that occur in Austin.

Austin is a more dangerous city because APD refuses to implement the Citation Option. APD officers are not available to solve violent crimes or more serious property crimes because they are busy arresting and booking people for these low-level nonviolent misdemeanor Citation Option offenses.
The report also includes an appendix with suggested language for an APD policy taking advantage of the new HB 2391 authority. Whether or not they enact such a measure, it's a good starting point for other jurisdictions looking to cut costs and focus more resources on serious crimes.

See prior, related Grits coverage of HB 2391:


Deb said...

I hear what your saying on the profiling having potential to get worse with emphasized discretion. That's why I've been calling --under my ACLU-TX chapter hat-- for the chief to institute a yearly check on officer's profiling numbers and implement into his new disciplinary matrix individual accountability.

And if he doesn't check on them, you know I'm not afraid of submitting open records requests on all 1400+ of them!

You can see more suggestions for the chief to implement and my report card on his first year at

Anonymous said...

Does an officer commit racial profiling if he arrests an individual that makes up the majority of the race in his district? I'm sick of people that are "CRIMINALS" throwing the race card out as an excuse for THEIR lack of restraint. If they can't "WORK" like the rest of us, and continue their criminal trade of theft, drug dealing, robbery, murder, etc...Then they deserve to be arrested for THEIR crime!

Anonymous said...

The problem is that in Austin, there is no evidence that people of color are committing more crimes than Whites. The highest theft rate is in 78704 - a White part of town. Illegal drugs are used by people who have white, brown and black skin at the same rate. Yet the criminal justice system comes down unequally on people of color.

Shouldn't the law treat people equally for the same behavior?

Anonymous said...

And if the number of crimes were reduced?

The "Broken Windows" approach to law enforcement has always been dependent upon society having an economy strong enough to produce 'expendable income' to be spent in what amounts to a net loss for that society.

Well, we ain't that rich a country anymore. It's time to decide what we can afford to lock people up for, and what we can't. So, who will it be? Anybody that you're 'mad at' for putting something in their bodies you don't approve of, or somebody who's a serial murderer\rapist\child molester?

The fiscal reality is already howling at the door...and it's getting hungrier by the minute...

Anonymous said...

The types of people who break "small laws" are the same types that commit felonies.

Might as well pick up these members of the "criminal class" before they do the next big crime.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"The types of people who break "small laws" are the same types that commit felonies."

That's just not true, even remotely, for the offenses covered under HB 2391, which are:

* Marijuana possession, (up to 4 oz)
* Criminal mischief with less than $500 damage
* Graffiti with less than $500 damage
* Theft by check with less than $500 stolen
* Theft of service with less than $500 stolen
* Contraband in a corrections facility (B misd. only)
* Driving With an Invalid License

Anonymous said...

I feel sure Anon at 4:17 does not consider him/herself a member of the "criminal class".

Of course he/she has never had a traffic ticket either. I also expect they have never violated traffic laws without being cought. In a pig's eye!!!

Failure to obey traffic laws is a crime. Do it turns out that in fact, he/she is a member of the "criminal class" after all.

I wonder how long it will be before they are picked up in order to avoid the next big crime. Such unabashed arrogance should be rewarded after all.

Anonymous said...

I think solving Part 1 violent crimes has more to do with adequate numbers of investigative officers / detectives available to follow up on reports taken by the patrol / beat officers.

Also, if the goal is to save gas, simply mandate that cops turn off their cars while on a scene that doesn't require emergency lighting. Too many times an officer is out somewhere and simply leaves the vehicle idling.

With all that said, the legislature needs to be more forceful next session in making sure this is implemented and the discretion to cite or arrest is put in the hands of the officer, not the DA.

Anonymous said...

I must be missing something. What happens when a defendant who "is ordered to appear at a J.P.court" fails to appear? How do you prove their identity if they have never given fingerprints or been photographed? Criminals are called bad guys for a reason. That is because they don't obey the law. Many people who have major felony warrants are caught because they commit a minor offense. So, you arrest a bad guy and then ask him to pretty please obey an order to go turn himself in. Do you think a bad guy is going to run turn himself in when he knows he has a felony warrant outstanding. Like it or not, this is the problem and it is why the vast majority of law enforcement rejects this scheme.

Also, Travis County talks about the distance and time it takes to travel to book someone. If this is such a problem and Travis thinks they don't need to arrest these people, then why don't they just use the age old process of "at large" filing. The defendant in an "at large" case never gets arrested until formal charges are filed in court. By that time they have a lawyer lined up and, in a minor case, get a bond and usually never see the jail for any length of time. Of course, the identity issues are still present but in typical "at large" cases the police have sufficient identifiers for the defendant. If Travis is willing to write citation and release Defendants, then filing "at large" should be no different. Get good identifiers and file at large.

Finally, if the damn case is so minor and it is so much trouble, then the officer has discretion to just let the defendant go. Happens all of the time. For example, young kids get stopped with marijuana and the cop lets them go. But, once an officer decides to arrest for an offense then people need to follow the booking process. If you want integrity in the system then there are just certain things that have to be done. Otherwise, you are going to have a lot of innocent people arrested because a criminal has stolen their identity and used it to get out of a crime by presenting false identification to the officer. Then when the criminal fails to appear in court a warrant will be issued for the innocent victim of the identity theft.

Sometimes accuracy is more important than speed and efficiency.

Anonymous said...

"The problem is that in Austin, there is no evidence that people of color are committing more crimes than Whites. The highest theft rate is in 78704 - a White part of town."

What part of town has the most murders and robberies? The eastside. You know this as well as I do. Whenever there is a very violent crime, I hear about places called Riverside, Burton, Rundberg, Montopolis.

The reason there are so many thefts ( a non-violent crime) on the westside is because that's where the wealthy folks (ie: targets) live. Who gets arrested for those thefts? Folks from the eastside who come over to commit the crimes.

Wake up.

Anonymous said...

This is for all you racist people.When you say colored people and the white people.You learn this at an early age at school,White is a color also, it also works both ways.But people didn't talk about that do they.

From The Little Green Man

Anonymous said...

Who said "colored people"? I believe the term used was "people of color". Isn't this the current PC phrase?

Anonymous said...

"Criminals are called bad guys for a reason. That is because they don't obey the law."

Except when the "Law" is wrong and the enforcers are the "Bad" guys.