Austin PD arrest, use of force rates much higher than comparably sized towns

The Statesman on Sunday published a lengthy feature with several interesting sidebars related to use of force by Austin PD officers, which has increased in frequency over the last three years even as the number of arrests declined.

The number of arrests “dropped 15 percent between 2009 and 2011,” reported the paper, from around 69,000 to under 59,000, while the number of use of force incidents increased. The result, as depicted in the graph on the right, is that the percentage of arrests involving use of force has increased.

By contrast, reported the paper, “In Portland, Ore., police use of force incidents have plunged steeply in recent years. In Sacramento, Calif., the number of such incidents by police has remained steady the past three years. In Charlotte, N.C., Seattle and Fort Worth, incidents of force use by police have either stayed steady or dropped.”

Indeed, Austin’s high use of force rates appear to be an outlier compared to similarly sized cities. “In 2011, with a population roughly comparable to Austin, Fort Worth’s police department reported 288 uses of force; Sacramento showed 216 and Charlotte had 471. Austin police reported nearly 1,700 incidents over the same period.” As is typical, a small number of officers accounted for a disproportionate share of use of force incidents:

the paper’s review showed a handful of Austin police officers consistently use force at a rate considerably higher than most. Officers who used force between 2009 and 2011 filed an average of three such reports per year.

But 21 Austin police officers each reported using force 40 or more times in the past 3½ years. Six of the officers had single years during which they reported 30 or more force incidents; one filed 71 use of force reports from the beginning of 2009 to mid-2012. Each worked primarily in the entertainment district.

So if 21 (out of 1,718 sworn) officers used force 40 or more times, that’s (at least) 840 out of roughly 4,600 incidents, or 1.2% of officers accounting for around one in five use of force incidents. In 2011, according to the paper, 165 officers, nearly 10% of sworn members of the department, used force six or more times. The majority of APD officers filed no use of force reports that year at all.

Another anomaly that one expert said could raise a “red flag”: “Of the 4,600 subjects who had force used against them by Austin police since 2009, 699 — about 1 in 7 — weren’t subsequently arrested.”

Taser use accounts for a significant proportion of the increase: “While police use of stun guns is up 80 percent since 2009, officers’ use of batons, pepper spray and dogs have remained relatively steady. Together, the weapons are used in about one-third of all force incidents.”

The feature story also included an interesting tidbit related to eye-poppingly high numbers of arrests by Austin PD compared to similarly sized cities.

Austin police report arresting people far more often than officers in similarly sized cities. In Portland, police make about 30,000 arrests every year; Fort Worth’s officers arrest about 38,000 annually, Charlotte about 27,000.

Last year, by comparison, Austin police reported nearly 59,000 arrests — 160 every day. In 2009, the number was 69,000.

Put another way, Austin arrests equal about 7.5 percent of its total population — double the ratio in Charlotte and 50 percent higher than in Portland and Sacramento. The rate is higher even than Dallas’s 5.9 percent.

A subset of those arrests are of frequent flyers, but then that’s true in the other towns as well. I was aware APD made many more DWI arrests based on unsubstantiated charges than other Texas jurisdictions, but I’m surprised the overall arrest numbers are that much higher than elsewhere. APD files about 7,000 DWI cases per year, the Statesman reported in 2011, with roughly 30% of them dismissed compared to less than 5% in Fort Worth. APD also makes around 6,000 public intoxication arrests each year, said the paper, which former District Attorney candidate Mindy Montford said is improperly used as “a crowd control technique.” (There was no information in the report regarding how many of those cases are dismissed.) “Citywide, the number of intoxicated subjects on whom officers used force doubled between 2009 and 2011.”

These data in general raise more questions than they answer: Why does APD arrest Austinites at greater rates than other jurisdictions? Why have arrest numbers declined even as the population grew? How does the ratio of arrests to dismissals compare to those other jurisdictions? Why has the proportion of use of force incidents increased and why is it so much higher than other, comparable jurisdictions? Are drunks becoming  more aggressive or has departmental culture about how to handle them changed? Are Tasers being used in episodes (like this one) where the suspect posed no threat? These data invite speculation on such questions but cannot supply answers. They’re certainly interesting questions, though.

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