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‘We Are Feeling Overpoliced’: State Troopers Join Patrols in Austin

Scores of state highway troopers, usually found on roadways across Texas in their distinctive cowboy hats and black-and-white patrol vehicles, have descended on Austin, the state capital.

At first, they were welcomed by the city’s Democratic leaders, part of a plan to address violent crime and make up for a shortage of more than 300 officers in the Austin Police Department.

But in a booming city known for its progressive politics, the partnership between the local police, steeped in the language of reform, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, under the direction of Republican state leaders, soon began to raise concern.

Statistics emerged showing that those arrested on misdemeanor charges by state troopers were mostly Black and Hispanic. In May, there was a fatal shooting by troopers after a chase. In July, another trooper shot at a fleeing, unarmed man, wounding him. Days later, two troopers drew their weapons on a father and son during a car stop.

After that stop, Austin’s mayor suspended the partnership with the state police. But instead of the troopers leaving, they were joined by dozens more when Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, ordered a fresh deployment.

Now Austin has entered an uncertain and uneasy new period in which two separate law enforcement agencies, with differing approaches to policing, are patrolling the streets without formal coordination. One answers to city leaders. The other to Mr. Abbott.

“We are feeling overpoliced — that’s the feedback that got back to me ultimately as the chief,” Joseph Chacon, chief of the Austin Police Department, said of the comments he has heard from the public.

The presence of so many state troopers has rekindled longstanding debates over policing and crime, particularly over the aggressive use of car stops for minor infractions as a way to prevent violence.

The deployment has also raised political concerns, with some Democrats suggesting that the influx of troopers was part of a push by Republican leaders in the State Capitol to exert greater control over growing, Democrat-led cities. The Republican-dominated Legislature passed laws this year limiting the discretion of elected local prosecutors and barring cities from enacting local ordinances on a range of issues.

Police officer shortages have been a nationwide problem, challenging major cities including New York and Los Angeles. In Houston, a leading Democratic candidate for mayor has said that if elected, he would welcome 200 state troopers into the city to assist its Police Department with combating violent crime.

On a recent Tuesday evening, state troopers could be found throughout Austin, pulling over drivers for traffic infractions or expired registrations, requesting permission to make searches, finding small amounts of drugs like Xanax, methamphetamine and marijuana.

Along North Lamar Boulevard in northeast Austin, red and blue lights flashed silently in the night, visible from a distance in the low-rise neighborhood, indicating another car stop by state troopers.

“If you stop people for traffic violations, there’s a high probability, if criminals operate in that area, that you’re going to encounter those criminals,” said Maj. Gabriel Ortiz, who has been supervising the deployment of troopers in Austin. “Let’s face it, they don’t abide by criminal laws, so they’re certainly not going to follow traffic laws.”

When the troopers arrived in late March, statistics were already showing declines in many major categories of violence. But violent crime remained an issue, Chief Chacon said, and his officers had little time for patrols. “Right now we’re running call to call to call,” he said.

State troopers, as well as a small number of specialized state police agents who could conduct investigations, helped respond to those calls and reduce the violence, the chief said.

“I think you’re going to see more and more of this,” Chief Chacon said, referring to state police possibly joining officers in other cities. “We’re all short-staffed.”

The staffing problems extend to the 911 call center, where officials said calls could take several minutes to reach an operator. Residents have complained of lengthy waits for officers to arrive. Some said the streets felt more disordered and dangerous in recent years.

“Things are sketchy out here,” said Gus Rojas, 28, who lives near downtown and said his neighbor’s home was broken into in June. “It feels like everything is up for grabs.”

As he spoke, Mr. Rojas, who had just been in a car accident, watched as state troopers looked over his wrecked sedan in the middle of a busy street. He welcomed their deployment in the city, he said, even as a trooper wrote him a ticket for failure to yield. “He’s just doing his job,” Mr. Rojas said.

The policing partnership began after a discussion between Mayor Kirk Watson, a former Democratic state senator, and Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor.

Mr. Patrick has attacked Austin for “defunding” its police and oversaw passage of a new state law to punish cities for future reductions. In 2020, Austin sharply reduced its police budget and temporarily suspended police academy classes. Funding levels have since increased and the academy has resumed, though the new classes have not kept pace with officer retirements and departures.

Mr. Watson was concerned by the shrinking ranks of the 1,800-member department. The state initially sent a contingent of 100 troopers and special agents.

But bringing in state troopers presented immediate political challenges for Mr. Watson, who ran the city in the late 1990s and returned to the office after narrowly defeating a progressive opponent last year.

Troopers were deployed in predominantly Black and Hispanic areas of the city where officials said 911 calls and crime reports were highest. Almost immediately, some residents began complaining about frequent car stops.

“It has never felt like a partnership to me,” said Vanessa Fuentes, an Austin City Council member who represents a largely Hispanic area in the southeast.

City officials consulted with the state police, who responded by spreading troopers out around the city.

At the same time, other residents said they had noticed a positive change.

“My roommate and I used to get our packages stolen almost every time we got something delivered,” said Sam Koontz, 29, who works in marketing and lives in the northeast neighborhood of Windsor Park. “And in the last couple months, that has stopped.”

She said that while she did not feel unsafe in the city, she welcomed the additional police resources, in part because getting local officers to respond to calls had lately been so difficult. “If you call 911, you won’t get an answer for 10 minutes sometimes,” she said.

Then came a television report in July that troopers had pointed their weapons at a 10-year-old boy and his father during a traffic stop. In response, Mr. Watson abruptly ended the partnership, even as he said in a news conference that it had succeeded in bringing down crime and improving 911 response times. Footage of the stop that was later released by the Department of Public Safety showed that the troopers drew their weapons but did not point them at the boy.

At that point, Mr. Abbott, the governor, said 30 additional troopers would be deployed to the city.

For Austin’s police reform advocates, the proliferation of state troopers has set back their efforts to change how the local police operate and to undo an aggressive style of street policing that became common starting in the 1990s. Those reforms have included diversity trainings, reducing the use of force and making fewer arrests for minor offenses.

“We’ve been working with our Police Department, and I’ve got to give them credit — they’ve conceded a lot,” said Chas Moore, the executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, which supports police reform and opposes patrols by state troopers. “And then D.P.S. comes in and instantly we’re just back to the ’90s.”

On a recent evening, plainclothes state police officers met outside a sushi restaurant off Interstate 35, piled into unmarked department pickup trucks and descended on a modest northeast Austin home where a man who had violated his parole was staying with his mother. They arrested him without incident.

Elsewhere, troopers made stops for traffic infractions and ran license plates to check registration statuses. During one stop, a man whose registration had expired gave troopers permission to look inside his trunk as he searched for a copy of his car insurance. No contraband was located. He was cited for having no proof of insurance.

“I’m not necessarily a fan of the pretext stop,” said Chief Chacon, referring to instances where officers use traffic violations to stop people they suspect of being involved in crime. “But I also believe in traffic enforcement. My traffic fatalities are way up. People don’t feel safe on the road right now.”

When state troopers pulled over Jamil Quinton on a Saturday after midnight this month, they said it was because he did not have a front license plate and failed to signal when changing lanes. Mr. Quinton, 37, who is Black, had been driving with his 19-year-old son and his son’s girlfriend. Troopers told him that they observed rolling papers in the car, and then found a pair of scales.

A plainclothes state officer in a tactical vest proceeded to search Mr. Quinton, who was now in handcuffs, including between his legs. He objected. “I said that it was excessive,” he recalled in an interview. “He kept jabbing against my testicles. I’ve never been searched like that.”

A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety described the interaction as routine and shared body camera footage of the search, which lasted about a minute. It showed Mr. Quinton, mostly visible from the waist up, complaining about how the officer who was patting him down searched around his crotch.

In the end, the officers wrote Mr. Quinton a ticket for possession of drug paraphernalia and let him go.



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