During a recent street racing incident, Austin residents faced long 911 wait times. City officials say they need to increase staffing for 911 call takers, but state license and background check requirements make it difficult to fill positions.
Gov. Greg Abbott has launched a task force to tackle “street takeovers,” just days after massive crowds turned Austin streets into a playground for chaotic stunts.
Over the weekend, several cars and trucks did burnouts and spun donuts in the middle of various intersections across Austin. In raucous scenes captured on videos that went viral, their tires sent smoke into the crowd and even set some nearby spectators’ clothes on fire. And once the police arrived, some officers had to back away as people threw rocks, bottles and fireworks against their vehicles. One officer was injured in the mayhem, though it was not life-threatening.
Since then, the Austin Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety have arrested and handed at least seven individuals criminal charges ranging from evading arrest to reckless driving to unlawful possession of a weapon. More people are expected to face charges, according to APD Police Chief Joseph Chacon.
Street takeovers have been seen in other cities, but this incident has caught the attention of top politicians. On Thursday, Abbott announced that DPS will work with local law enforcement to investigate and “target the organized crime aspect of the street takeovers with the goal of making arrests and seizing assets, including vehicles and weapons.”
“We must send a clear message that these reckless, coordinated criminal events will not be tolerated in Texas,” he said in a press release. Abbott also decried “foolish attempts by some local officials to defund [police departments],” making a similar dig as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
The task force is slated to pull from DPS divisions: Criminal Investigations, Aircraft Operations, Texas Highway Patrol, and Intelligence and Counterterrorism. But the press release doesn’t specify the amount of funding or personnel that the unit will be allocated. DPS declined The Texas Tribune’s interview request, instead referring back to Abbott’s statement.
The APD also didn’t provide an interview. But communication manager Brandon Jones said in a statement that they “applaud” the task force’s creation.
Street racing and takeovers are not new in Texas. They have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic in cities across the state and the country.
In 2018, the Dallas Police Department formed a street racing task force for its Southwest Division, when the city saw these activities happening frequently. According to DPD Public Information Officer Brian Martinez, the unit’s officers patrol hotspots and respond to calls regarding these activities, while also gathering information on suspected street takeover groups.
In 2020, the unit was expanded citywide. That same year, the city also banned spectating at a racing or takeover event — and doing so could result in a $500 fine.
Dallas police responded to at least 8,441 calls reporting them in 2020, compared to 4,867 the year before, according to The Dallas Morning News. Since then, Martinez noted that street racing and takeover incidents have continued, but they are now mostly taking place outside the city and in the surrounding suburbs instead.
“Takeover events happen on a weekly basis in the DFW area, though few are of the magnitude observed in Austin last weekend,” he said.
In Austin, it’s unlikely for the APD to create a similar unit any time soon due to staffing levels, Chacon said during a Tuesday press conference. Instead, the department would call on the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and DPS for assistance.
Staffing shortages are also at the heart of the major complaint on long 911 response times during the street takeovers — the longest of which was 27 minutes, according to Chacon. He added that the requirements for 911 call takers to be licensed by the state and pass all background checks “make it tough to hire people.”
“We believe we are being as creative as we can to get as many folks including not only holding people over from previous shifts, hiring very heavily on overtime, but I even have sworn staff in the 911 call center taking phone calls right now instead of being out on the street,” he said.
Mayor Kirk Watson has also zeroed in on the issue, calling the 911 wait times “unacceptable” in a Monday statement. He added that he is working with Chacon and Interim City Manager Jesús Garza to find “at least a temporary solution soon.”
In the same statement, Watson also pushed back against the Austin Police Association, who blamed the city’s policymakers on Sunday for lowering public safety. The mayor and the police union are currently in a fight over contracts, with the City Council wanting a one-year temporary contract while the APA is pushing for at least a four-year contract.
“Twitter is not an appropriate forum for contract negotiations, and no Austinite should ever accept the false choice between public safety and responsible policing — Austin can, and will, have both,” Watson said. “If the Austin Police Association would like to talk about staffing and other issues, we welcome them back to the negotiating table to discuss a one-year contract.”
Renzo Downey contributed to this story.
Photo: Gov. Greg Abbott has launched a state task force to crack down on street takeovers. Credit: Montinique Monroe for the Texas Tribune
BY ALEX NGUYEN with Texas Tribune.