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Austin police halt responses to nonemergency calls amid staff shortages

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Beginning Friday, October 1st, police in the capital city of Austin, TX are asking citizens to call 311 rather than 911 for any non-emergency situations. There is, however, a bit of ambiguity in terms of what constitutes a non-emergency.

The Austin Police Department described non-emergencies as those when a crime has already been committed and the perpetrator is no longer at the scene, or when there is no life or property at immediate risk. Citizens should use 311 to report those crimes for further investigation.

“Please understand, if somebody is in danger, we’re still going to send a marked unit and a uniformed officer to go handle it,” interim police chief Joseph Chacon explained to KXAN-TV. “But for crimes that may have already happened and are now being reported, we are looking at alternative measures, and that’s what we’re working on now.”

The request comes following the department’s re-imagining of its policies as well as a shortage of officers along with enforcement of COVID-19 mitigation protocol that began in May of 2020.

The department claimed that at the top of those considerations is reducing interaction between officers and the public vis-a-vis COVID exposure. As such, officers will no longer be responding to non-emergency calls.

“I feel like, in many areas, not just obviously in our sworn officers on the street, but with our property crime technicians in forensics and in our Austin 311 call center, we are experiencing staffing shortages, and, so, I think that I’m going to ask for a little bit of patience. Many times people do have to wait on hold when they’re calling 311 in order to make that report,” the interim chief said.

“If an officer is not necessarily needed, in other words, this is a crime that obviously has already been committed, and we can still get a property crime technician there to take photos, to be able to gather the evidence and to provide a case number and a way to follow up to a victim of a crime, then that may be the most appropriate way, actually, to handle it so that I can free my officers up to keep answering the emergency calls for service where we have a violent crime and people that are actively engaged in criminal activity,” he added.

Crimes that would be considered non-emergencies include verbal disputes, theft, suspicious person(s) or vehicle, animal control services, prostitution, and burglary of a residence, business, or vehicle.

“Again, if any on that list are still in progress, and there is an immediate threat to public safety, then a call to 911 is appropriate, and we will dispatch an officer,” Chacon noted.

In August, a North Carolina woman was in Austin for a bachelorette party, and the house the group had rented was burglarized, the network reported.

The woman’s father, Darin Short, said “They proceeded to call the police and were referred to 311, who instructed them to start an online report. And no law enforcement official arrived at the location.”

Three weeks passed and on Wednesday, they finally heard back from Austin police who told them to expect a call from an officer in the next 48 hours.

Chacon expressed that the new procedures could still be reevaluated and altered depending on changing conditions, and if the department is able to incentivize more people to become police officers.

“We’re going to be seeking input into that area from our community stakeholders, from City Council, from community members at large in the coming months to see how they want those police services delivered, and then we’ll be able to determine how many officers we really need,” said the chief.

He concluded with a reminder that if someone is unsure of whether or not a situation is an emergency, they should still call 911.

Frank Webster

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