Nestled next to Texas' beautiful hill country lies the City of Austin, one of the nation's fastest growing and safest cities. Often, increased crime accompanies rapid growth, but this city manages to balance quality growth with a great quality of life. Much of the credit for this goes to the men and women of the Austin Police Department (APD), whose vision statement reflects that crime-fighting priority: "We want Austin to be the safest city in America."
Founded in 1839 and named the Texas capital in 1846, Austin carries a lot of history. With almost 700,000 residents, Austin definitely qualifies as a big city, but it reflects a certain level of pride in most areas. Known for technology, Austin is home to Dell Computer, the largest computer manufacturer in the country. Even the city's education level reflects the tech influence; more than 40 percent of residents older than 25 hold a bachelor's degree or higher.
Austin's caliber is reflected by its police department's national accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). In 2000, the APD was the first agency in Texas to become accredited and remains the largest agency in the state with CALEA certification. To maintain excellence, Austin runs its own 28-week academy and processes every applicant through the academy regimen, even if they have experience and training from another Texas agency. Academy classes of approximately 70 recruits are run twice yearly. Field training lasts at least 12 weeks, and probation runs 15 months after academy graduation. Cadets are considered civilian employees until they complete the academy.
The city is divided into nine districts, each overseen by a commander. There are four substations; the main station is located downtown. The number of patrol officers working each district varies based on geographic size of the district and call volume; generally, each district runs 8 11 person shifts. Officers work 4-10 shifts and rotate their days off every 30 days. Once a year, officers with skills such as Spanish, AR15 certification, intoximeter and FTO are moved based on department needs. Officers usually remain with their assigned shift unless they are promoted or request to be moved.
Officers wear dark-blue uniforms with a deep red accent stripe on the side that matches the red in the patch. They use black Sam Brown-style gear in either leather or nylon. Basket weave is not permitted. Once out of the academy, uniforms and duty gear are all provided by the department. Rain gear and body armor (Point Blank) are issued to officers. With the exception of shoes, worn-out gear is simply turned in for replacement.
Officers can select from a wide choice of firearms and may carry any of several approved weapons in calibers including .38, .357, 9mm, .40 and .45. The 1911-style semi-auto is being phased out, and most officers carry double-action semi-auto pistols. There is no standard-issue duty weapon. Taser X26 units are issued to officers who have completed required training. Each officer uses a permanently assigned 800 MHz handheld radio.
Patrol cars are the standard Ford Crown Victoria police package in white with distinctive blue and gold trim. All cars feature low-profile Tomar LED light bars and are equipped with transport partitions and a shotgun. Trained officers and supervisors carry carbines in the trunk of some cars, and officers may also carry their own carbine within department specifications. The department currently uses dumb terminals (MDTs) in most patrol cars but is in the process of transitioning to a new system that will allow for much greater capabilities. A Panasonic Toughbook forms the heart of the system and can be mounted or docked, allowing the officer to function in the car with a mobile computer or remove the unit to use as a portable laptop.
The system will interact with the agency's TriTech computer-aided dispatch system and new automated field reporting (AFR) system. AFR will permit almost real-time viewing of a completed report by other department personnel and will greatly enhance operational efficiency. To make documentation quicker and more cost effective, the department will use some digital camera units to document many crimes (such as domestic violence) previously covered with Polaroid units.
Each district includes a street-response shift comprised of officers who target problem areas. They work in uniform or plainclothes as the need dictates, and usually operate in low-profile vehicles. Officers on bikes and horses augment city patrol efforts. The bike officers work on specially outfitted Trek mountain bikes, and they've proved particularly effective at working the city's parks and downtown areas. Usually riding in pairs, the officers wear special utility uniforms similar to those worn by patrol but designed to enhance the officers' comfort, effectiveness and safety. (One unusual safety touch features reflective material on the shirt sleeves.) They have special racks on their patrol units so they can get quickly to a specific area or operate a patrol vehicle when needed.
Mounted units trailer their horses to the area of town where they patrol but often spend time in the parks and downtown area. The additional height provides officers the ability to spot suspicious activity, and the physical size of the horse provides a unique combination of public acceptance and crowd compliance. Few people choose to argue with an officer on a horse. Mounted officers also work in a modified uniform and wear the same reflective strips on their sleeves as the bike officers.
Like many big cities, Austin has its share of freeways; unlike many areas, where the state is responsible for traffic enforcement and accident investigation on these roads, specially trained members of the APD's Highway Enforcement Command take on the task. Using a combination of motor officers, patrol officers and a helicopter, the Highway Enforcement Command took a very aggressive enforcement stance last year and significantly reduced the number of fatal traffic accidents from 71 in 2004 to 59 in 2005. The unit's two dedicated teams, overseen by a lieutenant, work alcohol enforcement and take part in ongoing regional efforts to combat DWIs.
The department's air unit operates as part of the Highway Enforcement Command and considers roadway safety one of its primary missions. Equipment includes a Eurocopter EC120B, a Bell OH58C (an Army surplus unit currently being refurbished) and a Cessna 182. The EC120B's enclosed tail rotor makes it one of the quietest helicopters produced, which is ideal for urban coverage. The helicopter plays a vital role in DWI interdiction, traffic management, identification of aggressive drivers and coordination of major incident response. The APD uses the Cessna for traffic enforcement as well as prisoner transports and transporting investigators on follow-ups.
Homeland Defense Command
The Homeland Defense Command combines many specialized resources into one division that uses a variety of specialties to address homeland security issues. The APD's SWAT, K-9, Search and Rescue, Special Events, Executive Protection, Bomb Squad, Intelligence and Homeland Defense teams are all found here. The SWAT unit was relatively busy during 2005, handling 74 high-risk missions and training new recruits in defensive tactics and firearms. The unit was featured several times on the Court TV show "Texas SWAT."
The K-9 unit includes six dogs, all of which are either German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois. Their capabilities include general patrol support, suspect and evidence search, and narcotics detection. Two of the dogs are specially trained to work with the agency's SWAT unit. The K-9 section works closely with Search and Rescue, a unit with a civilian coordinator to oversee the large number of volunteers.
Major events are held frequently in the Austin area, and members of the Special Events unit coordinated more than 250 significant events and earned a Meritorious Unit Citation for pulling off a virtually incident-free year. With events often come dignitaries, and the APD maintains its highly specialized Executive Protection unit to coordinate VIP security. As the capital of one of the largest states in the country, Austin is a frequent stopover for presidents and other notables. Unfortunately, with special events and dignitary visits come the threat of explosives. The APD's seven-member bomb squad features specialized equipment, including three robots. The team handled more than 100 callouts during 2005.
Working in tandem with the above units as well as providing a significant investigative function, the APD's Intelligence Unit is composed of detectives who actively run down leads and hunt down the most serious criminals. Their efforts often include prolonged stakeouts and informant work. The team arrested more than 250 suspects during the last year for crimes ranging from aggravated assault to murder and, in doing so, spent nearly 4,000 man-hours in stakeouts.
A small group of specialized officers make up the Homeland Defense team, a unit primarily responsible for ensuring readiness and developing protocols for threats, disasters and major incident response.
While most property crimes and many assault cases are handled by investigators working out of each of the substations, major investigative efforts for homicide, auto theft, sex crimes and forgery are centralized. Some highlights of these teams' efforts include a 100 percent clearance rate for homicides (26) and a 70 percent clearance rate for robberies during 2005. Part of the success is due to the department's aggressive use of crime-scene technicians, highly trained non-sworn personnel who can process a complex scene and work in the lab. Handling crime scenes with these specialists frees officers for patrol responsibilities and makes for more effective forensic outcomes. The technicians were involved in more than 13,000 cases during 2005. Austin's crime lab was recently awarded certification for its crime-scene section, becoming the twentieth lab in the entire world to attain this rating.
The clearance rate is a significant factor in Austin's safety level and citizens' confidence in the department. A recent survey shows that 93 percent of Austin's residents feel safe walking in their neighborhoods during the day, and 70 percent feel safe at night. Another success story occurred in financial crimes, where detectives served more than 200 warrants and helped the Secret Service collar a major counterfeit operation.
Officers must test for detective positions, and once the position is attained, they may remain in investigations unless disciplined or the officer requests a patrol transfer. A promotion does not necessarily mean the officer will return to patrol. Detectives are paid at the same rate as a patrol corporal, also a tested position, and work either 4-10 or 5-8 shifts depending on the area assigned.
APD's Strategic Command is an eclectic mix that includes the Career Criminal, Animal Cruelty, Fugitive Apprehension and Crime Analysis units. Career Criminal investigators focus on the most dangerous and pervasive criminal suspects, and arrested more than 800 in 2005 while seizing more than 100 firearms. The Animal Cruelty unit expanded as a result of increased citizen awareness and sensitivity to incidents involving animals. The Fugitive Apprehension unit handles the tracking, apprehension and extradition of individuals wanted by the APD and some neighboring agencies. More than 5,000 criminal warrants were issued during the last year. Crime Analysis assigns analysts to each of the nine patrol area commands and some of the major investigation areas, providing valuable and timely insight to crime trends and series.
The Organized Crime Division (OCD) is comprised of Gang Suppression, Alcohol Control, Narcotics Conspiracy and Major Crimes units. Much of the division's efforts focus on stopping the importation and distribution of illegal drugs. The OCD detectives work everything from street-level dealers to multi-national conspiracies, as well as white-collar crime and gang-related incidents. During 2005, the unit concluded an 18-month investigation with FBI and IRS agents, resulting in the service of more than 40 search warrants and the seizure of hundreds of gambling machines.
Quality of Life
When it comes to off-duty issues, Austin has a lot going for it. The city's economy is strong, but citizens enjoy one of the lowest cost-of-living ratios in the nation. Officers can buy a home with acreage for what a small condo costs on either coast. There's an interesting mix of cowboy hats, computers and just about any kind of entertainment you can imagine. For a big city, Austin is clean, modern and friendly sort of the white hat of Texas. Take a look, you'll be impressed.
Austin Police Department
Female officers: 150
Police cadet: $32,001
Probationary officer: $44,570
Police officer, 1-year anniversary: $50,015
Police officer, 2-year anniversary: $55,204
Corporal or detective @ 10 years: $68,890
Field training lasts at least 12 weeks; probation runs 15 months after academy graduation. Cadets are considered civilian employees until they complete the academy.
After 23 years of service, officers may retire at 2/3 pay regardless of age. Retirement is based on average of last three years. Employee pays 6% of pay per pay period. City pays remainder. Officers 55 or older with 20 years can retire. Ten years to vest.
Dale Stockton is the editor of Law Officer.