While a rash of shootings over the weekend was eye-opening, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said the Police Department had been aware of a rising tide of violent crime in the city’s entertainment district before South by Southwest. Officers have been finding more people with guns and other weapons and have responded to multiple shootings there in the past year, he said.
In the aftermath of the weekend shootings, which left several people injured and one dead, Manley vowed to work with other police leaders to find ways to improve safety in the area, like approaching venues and events with a history of sparking violence.
Manley said a strong presence of police officers is one of the best deterrents to crime. During SXSW, when the entertainment district is packed with thousands of visitors and a wide variety of both sanctioned and unsanctioned events, more officers are needed on patrol.
However, even with hundreds of officers stationed in and around downtown Austin over the last weekend of the festivals, the area saw a spike in gun violence. Austin police responded to five separate shootings within a 48-hour period, the last of which led to a shootout with officers. Three of the shootings were in the Sixth Street area or immediately adjacent to it.
At the time of the officer-involved shooting, Manley estimated about 300 on-duty officers were within a mile of the incident.
Policing high-traffic areas is becoming more of a problem as Austin continues to grow. Manley said the department can’t focus all of its resources on the bar-lined blocks of Sixth Street and has to spread them to cover other areas like Fourth Street, Rainey Street, the Red River District and Riverside Drive, all of which have boomed in recent years.
Solutions could include measures like adding more officers and changing how or where they are deployed, but Manley said they could also include targeting venues or specific shows that tend to attract violence, something the chief said police have done before.
“We have in the past become aware of an artist or a group that was going to come to town and has a following and a history in prior cities and prior concerts of having significant violence associated with them,” he said. “We proactively go out and we talk with that venue about whether or not they want to host that event, and, if so, what are their security plans.”
Manley said police officials are still early in the process of building plans to respond to the increased violence downtown and didn’t provide specifics Monday.
“We are working on what staffing will look like over the coming weekends, but the bigger picture will be looking at what else do we need to do,” Manley said. “What commonalities, if any, can we find?”
If police can pinpoint venues or acts that they think will pose a problem, the idea would be to work with them beforehand on how to handle security issues. If they refuse to cooperate, officers could look into whether they are violating any Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission licensing regulations or other rules to prevent them from moving ahead with an event.
“We will bring any resources to bear that we can if we can figure out any commonalities or any businesses that are drawing in this criminal element that we’ve seen infiltrate our entertainment district and really bring the level of violence to a level that we’ve not seen before,” Manley said.
The chief said investigations into the incidents over the weekend are still too early to determine whether they were directly tied to SXSW. Regardless, Manley said, police have to be able to respond quickly to both sanctioned and unsanctioned events, for which police might have little or no warning.
“We do pay attention to the pop-up events because you don’t necessarily know who that act is ahead of time to really plan for what type of a crowd might respond,” Manley said.