Austin is the capital of Texas and is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Centrally located between San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, Austin ranks as the 27th largest city in the United States. With 225 square miles inside the city limits, the 1999 population was estimated at 567,566. The Austin metropolitan area encompasses 2,705 square miles and approximately 1,057,000 people. Currently, Austin is one of the top-rated cities in the United States for business, housing more than 800 high-tech firms. The wide-range of restaurants, attractions, and ethnic backgrounds in Austin attest to its great diversity.
As with many other LEAs, the Austin Police Department has, in recent decades, been confronted with increasing demands created by a growing population, which has not been matched by a corresponding growth in the number of sworn officers. According to our LEA contacts, the sworn force was at a fairly level 600-700 officers from the mid-1980s and grew to 950 by 1993, although the population was growing more rapidly. In recent years, an emphasis has been placed on increasing the force and, driven by annexations and increased budget allocations by the city council, the sworn complement has grown to about 1,100 officers with a long-term goal of having 1.8 officers per 100,000 population.
Though there has been no dramatic diminution in command emphasis on traffic enforcement, the general culture of enforcement has changed over the years. Whereas, in the years leading up to the mid-1980s, officers usually were given general patrol assignments, in recent years more specialized enforcement units (such as a warrants unit) have been created. Thus, a smaller fraction of the force now is assigned to general patrol duties. In the past, general patrol officers would be instructed to enforce traffic laws when not responding to calls for service. In more recent years the instructions have remained the same, but with fewer officers on a population basis and more officers on specialized teams, the volume of calls for service per officer has gone up, with a corresponding decrease in time available to take traffic enforcement actions. Thus, the vast majority of patrol officers now have not had great experience in traffic enforcement, and it is less a part of the culture. In the last half-decade, as the force has grown, there also has been a call for increased attention to traffic issues from the public and from police management.
Within the department there is a traffic unit. It currently consists of a lieutenant and other administrative and supervisory staff, twenty officers in a weights and measures unit, eight on a DWI task force, and ten in a collision investigation unit. Previously, there were also twenty-five motorcycle officers assigned to the division. In the late 1990s these officers were dispersed and placed under the supervision of the area commanders.
Over the past two to three years, the traffic unit has marshaled its resources to increase the traffic enforcement effort in the City. One effort has been the creation of the eight officer DWI task force, specializing in anti-DWI enforcement, which was constituted in early 1998. This task force initially employed a strategy where general patrol officers were encouraged to make DWI stops and then pass the suspects off to DWI Task force officers for processing. In the initial stages of the task force's existence, with a combination of the task force-initiated arrests and the hand-off arrests, the task force was accounting for approximately one-half of the department's DWI arrests. However, recently, the traffic commander believes that as general patrol officers have become more familiar with the DWI arrest process, they have become more comfortable with it and are handling more of their cases all the way through the process. Consequently, general patrol now accounts for approximately three-quarters of the Department's DWI arrests.
Additionally, the weights and measures enforcement officers have been assigned to conduct more general traffic enforcement activities during both morning and evening rush hour periods to both improve traffic flow and cite violators. Also, supplemental Selective Traffic Enforcement Programs (STEP) for overtime enforcement efforts have become more focused, and officers assigned to that duty are monitored for performance.
Through the increased emphasis on DWI enforcement and the assignment of weights and measures officers to more general traffic enforcement, the Department seems to have counterbalanced the reassignment of motorcycle officers from traffic enforcement to more general area patrol assignments and other specialized duties.
Monthly citation data were received from the Austin Police Department for 1985 through 1999. The figure below depicts all citations written for non-hazardous and for hazardous traffic-related offenses.
Figure 62: Austin Police Department - Hazardous/Non-Hazardous Citations, 1985-1999
The trend line in Figure 63 indicates a slight downward trend of all traffic-related citations combined.
Figure 63: Austin Police Department - All Traffic Citations, 1985-1999
Looking at citations issued for speeding violations, by month, we also see a downward trend.
Figure 64: Austin Police Department - Speeding Citations, 1985-1999
However, DWI arrests increased sharply in 1998 and continued to rise during 1999 (Figure 65). This would be attributed to the creation of the DWI task force.
Figure 65: Austin Police Department - DWI Arrests, 1985-1999
With the introduction of a DWI task force in recent years, DWI arrests have risen dramatically in the past two years. Encouragingly, this increased emphasis on DWI seems to have started an educational process with the general patrol officers, resulting in an increasing number of DWI arrests being made by officers assigned to general patrol, as opposed to the DWI task force officers.
However, even with a growing police force and an increasing population, the overall volume of traffic citations has remained level to slightly declining for the past few years. This is attributed to an increasing demand on officers assigned to general patrol to respond to calls for service. The current level seemingly is being maintained by diverting some specialized traffic enforcement efforts (weights and measures) to more general traffic enforcement duties.