Instead of splatting the cockroach against the crack of the wall and mopping him up later, I stared, frozen. Another cockroach straight from hell. Ridiculously giant, too. With its antennae feeling around all on their own, it watched me for the next move.
I could feel my pulse hard. If you were next to me, you would’ve felt it. I tried the dumbest idea: try to put a cup over the bug. Trap him and flush him. Instead, I fumbled, the cup touched the roach, it bolted, and I dropped the cup. I jumped back. The roach darted along the cracks and corners of the room and disappeared into a small crack under the bathroom cabinet. Slurrrppp. All gone.
Great. Now we're living with this damn bug. Sleeping with it. And I was supposed to tune into the psychotic Austin wavelength today to write. We’ve got this horrific murder, these attacks, the Police Chief running around turning everything into a “MORE COPS! BIGGER BUDGET” sermon, and seriously believable claims of police abuse. The cops look about as spooked and incompetent as I do holding this can of Raid.
People are mad and people are afraid. The city is in defense mode, now. They’re dug in for battle like that damn cockroach.
Everyone’s got a question for the police. “What are you doing to catch the murderer?” “How can I feel safe at night?” “Are you putting more cops up here where the murder happened?” Basically every newspaper or TV news organization has interviewed the Police Chief, asking the same old shit.
At the Heritage Neighborhood Meeting, the neighborhood where the murder and attacks happened, the police made a big display with their question-and-answer session. The room at the First English Lutheran Church was packed full with friends of Barrera and people who’ve been living in the neighborhood since forever.
The police stepped up, but struck out on some of the first questions. The cops didn’t know anything new about the murder. No one was arrested. The alien-like, most generic-looking human composite drawing ever done, was just “a person of interest.”
The crowd pressed further: they wanted to know why, when a woman was followed and attacked in the middle of the night, the police didn’t pay more attention or even really lookfor the attacker. They wondered why a police helicopter wasn’t brought in. They wondered why there aren’t more cops patrolling the neighborhood right now. And why there were so many police handing out tickets and enforcing traffic laws instead. Shouldn’t they be like ... “catching criminals?”
The spokeswoman officer wasn’t speaking loud enough and people were interrupting her every couple of minutes yelling, “we can’t hear you!” After deferring to other officers, Art Acevedo, Austin’s Police Chief, took over.
He didn’t take many questions. What questions he did take, he answered like a politician. He made sure everyone in the room knew how little money the Austin Police Department works with, how they’re a “lean department,” and how they maximize every penny. He talked about how the APD is a “data-driven, intelligence-led” police force. About how he puts the cops where the data says they should be, and how traffic enforcement brings down all crime (and to “look it up”). Everyone clapped as he said goodbye, even though he didn’t really answer anyone’s questions. But that doesn’t seem to make a dent in people’s love for Art Acevedo. The guy’s so good at deflecting tough questions and charming crowds that he doesn’t need to say shit.
I was one of the first people out of the church. It was disgusting in there. The woman in charge of the meeting said she had to lock up the church, even though nothing really had been resolved. On the way out, a super made-up TV news reporter yelled at me from her news van.
TV Reporter: “Hey! Were you in the meeting?”
TV Reporter: “We didn’t get to go in. Can you tell me about what happened?”
Me: “Uhh, well, the cops don’t know anything and the chief told us not to go outside by ourselves late at night. It seemed like he pissed some people off.”
TV Reporter: “Anything else?”
Me: “Not really besides that.”
TV Reporter: “Oh …”
Me: “Well, good luck with your … thing.”
It was big news when Art Acevedo was selected to be Austin’s next Police Chief. He talked well on camera, looked like a George Clooney whose looks were gnarled by seeing grisly crimes, claimed he had “the heart of a servant,” challenged us to “question government,” and he even looked square into our eyes and told us that “getting to shake kids’ hands and to hand out candy and just letting people know that you are part of that community is, to me, it is the most gratifying part of the job.”
Local media ate it up. In 2007, The Austin Chronicle, quoting the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, wrote, “Today, the sun has shined on the city of Austin, with the hopeful promise of a new era for relations between the police and the city's minority communities.” They agreed: “Let the sun shine in. Let the sun shine in, indeed.” Even the alternative press was suckered.
All of this sunny, love-blind enthusiasm covered up Acevedo’s fairly recent Californian past: a crude sexual harassment case involving a female officer. The case interfered with Acevedo’s near-promotion within the California Highway Patrol. According to a July 9^th^, 2004 LA Times article, “Acevedo kept sexually explicit Polaroid photographs of the woman in the glove box of his state-issued car and showed them to other supervisors after the affair ended … Two CHP captains allegedly have said Acevedo showed them the pictures, including one in which the woman is performing a sexual act on him.”
The result of the internal California Highway Patrol investigation isn’t surprising: no official punishment for Acevedo, the case was dismissed (supposedly in preparation for a lawsuit that never came), and the woman got state disability, according to the Times, “on the grounds that she suffered a stress injury because she was victimized in ‘a high-profile sexual harassment investigation.’”
Traffic Enforcement's Cash Injection
Looking at the budgets from 2005 to 2009, the years directly before and after the APD became Acevedo’s, there’s one obvious change: traffic enforcement spending rockets. In 2005, 8.8 million dollars were spent on traffic enforcement. In Acevedo’s first year, 2006-2007, about 14 million dollars were spent. In terms of the whole budget, spending on traffic enforcement went from taking up 4.8% of the budget, to 7% of it.
Austin has kept the APD’s strength at 2 officers per 1,000 of us. But the amount of police assigned to Neighborhood Patrol (these are the most important form of cop: the ones that are supposed to respond to emergency 9-1-1 calls) is only a part of the force. For the first half of the 2000s, Neighborhood Patrol used half of the entire force. But in 2006, that percentage started to go down.
As of budget 2011-12, only 45% of the total force is Neighborhood Patrol, but you wouldn’t know it by glancing at it. You’d actually think that it rose to over 50% of the force since last year, because they lumped Traffic Enforcement in with Neighborhood Patrol. Why would they combine two seemingly unrelated categories of cops?
At the Heritage Neighborhood meeting, Acevedo made it clear that he thinks he’s working with a bare-bones, minimalistic police force. And since he doesn’t have enough raw cop power to put one everywhere you might need one, he's using these popular modern policing strategies to spread the APD as efficiently and thinly as possible: “CompStat” and “Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety.”
Number of APD Officers (as a percent of the total force) devoted to Neighborhood Patrol (a.k.a. Emergency Responders, the important guys)
Lies, Damn Lies, and Computer Statistics
The New York subways in the late 70s were basically a complex maze of crime-ridden hell-holes. They called ‘em the caves. Jack Maple, a transit cop in the 80s, got sick of the routine of just chasing after the criminals, so he made huge maps of the New York subway system and started plotting crimes.
When William Bratton was made Chief of Transit Police, he worked with Maple and his maps. Together, between 1990 and 1992, they cut crime by some extreme numbers. Two years later, in 1994, Rudolph Giuliani made Bratton the Chief of the NYPD. Maple became second in command.
Bratton was influenced by criminologist George L. Kelling, the co-founder of "broken windows theory". In ‘82, Kelling and a colleague of his, James Q. Wilson, wrote an article titled “Broken Windows” for The Atlantic Monthly. In it, they argue that general “disorder” and annoying behavior directly leads to serious crime. They take the example of broken down property, which eventually becomes “fair game.” They extend this logic to society: a small breakdown of authority eventually makes all rules and law fair game.
If police officers let us get away with things like being an obnoxious drunk, begging for change a little too aggressively, or scribbling “FUCK YOU” on a wall somewhere, they are encouraging criminal behavior all around.
Using statistics like when, where, and what crimes happened, by mapping them over the city, and by comparing the information over time, Maple and Bratton were able to see trends in crime. They were able to point out, mathematically and scientifically, where the most crimes were happening and when. This is the core of what became CompStat, or Computer Statistics.
Over the next few years, New York crime fell so quickly that people were beyond shocked. Many criminologists were expecting a chaotic violence-ridden near future where crime rates skyrocketed higher than we’d ever seen before. But those people were laughably wrong. Five years after CompStat and the NYPD’s reorganization, murder fell by over seventy percent.
Crime fell so quickly that news articles between 1990 and 1992 quote resistance to the idea that the fall in crime rates would last. In 1992, The New York Times quoted then-NY Governor Mario Cuomo, “most people will rebel at the idea that the subways are getting safer.”
The media gave the credit for the sudden drop in crime to the police and their new policing tactics. It seemed easy to understand that if the cops are Nazi bullies about the dumbest offenses, then people would stop breaking the law so damn much. The story was propagated like it was truth from God. Broken windows theory and CompStat were picked up by police departments all over America.
But not everyone agreed that the NYPD was able to bring crime down that far, all by itself using CompStat and with its faith in fixing broken windows. Their results weren't really backed by any serious studies. In 2004, Steven D. Levitt published a critique of the commonly believed reasons why crime fell. Levitt argued that “Better Policing Strategies, played little or no role in the crime decline.” Crime began to fall two years before Giuliani became Mayor and Bratton the Chief of Police. Levitt noted that except murder, there was no “obvious break” after Bratton took over, and that the massive 45% growth in the NYPD force that happened during the same time could easily be the real cause for the decrease in crime. He also points out that crime fell all across the country, regardless of whether or not these other police departments used CompStat. But those statistics aren’t sexy or easily headline-able.
Say 'Hello' to CompStat, Data-Driven Policing, and Texas-Sized Police Badges
In 2007, Chief Acevedo came into Austin with “guns blazing.” He fired a trigger-happy cop who contributed to the APD being under review by the Justice Department for what basically boiled down to accusations of race-fueled police brutality.
By 2008, Acevedo had restructured some seemingly strange areas of the police department. He made traffic safety and enforcement a high priority. According to the 2008 budget, “traffic safety continues to be a major focus of the Austin Police Department and substantial resources are committed to traffic safety improvements and enforcement.”
Secondly, the police uniforms were redesigned and their badges got bigger. From the budget, again, “part of the department’s reorganization was the revamp of law enforcement uniforms and vehicles. This included the beginning of the conversion of squad cars to a black and white scheme, larger identification badges that feature the Star of Texas above the Capitol building, and the removal of red from officer uniforms.”
But most importantly, the APD started using CompStat. Forget for a second that there has been almost no research showing that these programs are effective. CompStat isn’t a pre-packaged software bundle, either. It’s a model for identifying problem areas and deploying cops, using statistics and detailed, timely police reporting. Every department’s implementation will be different, with different levels of success and resemblance to the original NYPD CompStat system.
But by 2008, CompStat was pretty much old news. Of course the police were using computers to find the crime “hot spots.” Obviously that, alone, wasn’t the key to ending crime. A similar, but new, statistics-based policing model was being promoted by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), one that mimics all of the APD 2008 budget, and Art Acevedo’s talking points: Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS).
What DDACTS does, is basically take CompStat-like, statistic-driven crime density reports and use them to suggest deployment for traffic enforcement. The theory being that since there is somewhat of a relationship between areas with a lot of collisions and a lot of crime, throwing a traffic cop at those areas to pull over anyone who forgets to put on a blinker, or has a busted tail light (most of Texas), will reduce crime rates.
This was echoed by Acevedo at the Heritage Neighborhood meeting, and in interviews about the murder of Barrera. He insisted that traffic stops reduce crime.
Contrary to what a lot of people think, traffic stops don’t necessarily generate money for the Police Department. If they do get any of the money made from traffic tickets, it’s in a very abstracted, bureaucratic way that isn’t made clear in the APD budget. So that’s not necessarily the motivation for DDACTS.
A lot of arrests start with a simple traffic stop. It’s not hard to understand why. The police run your ID (if you even have one), check you for warrants, look through your car windows for illegal shit (guns, drugs, open booze containers, stolen stuff), and grill you about where you’re going and what you’re doing to try and figure out which law you’re breaking. This is the backbone of data-driven policing. Put the cops where the crime (and crashes) happen, and people, hopefully criminals, will get arrested.
The NIJ lists seven “demonstration sites” where DDACTS were tested. In all of the sample police departments, the result was across-the-board less collisions. One claimed fewer “fraud” cases, less vandalism, and whatever else they could see was down, but evidence didn’t really support that anything but luck was the cause. The agencies that claimed all violent crime went down were grouping murder, rape, assault,and robbery and then displaying it as a single line on a chart. These “studies” are a joke. They’re not scientific at all. All they are is promotional garbage aimed towards politicians and police executives.
Some of the departments claimed that their increased enforcement lowered robbery, some didn’t. A 1988 study by Wilson and Boland of police “aggressiveness” (in the form of traffic stops and interrogations) and crime seemed to suggest that it reduced the amount of robberies by either accidentally finding fugitives or illegal stuff, or by deterring criminals in general.
Another study done in Kansas City in 1995, where police increased patrols in “hot spots,” targeted towards “high risk” offenders (those suspected to be in the middle of doing a serious crime), allowed police to find more illegal weapons, which led to a decrease in gun-related crimes.
Yet, there have been an equal amount of scholarly studies (Jacob and Rich, 1981) that didn’t find a relationship between increased traffic enforcement and reduced crime. Also, it’s unclear whether or not you can increase traffic enforcement indefinitely and catch an indefinite amount of criminals. Not all criminals own cars, you know.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the effectiveness of increased aggressive traffic enforcement against various crimes. The scholarly evidence varies between “yes, ... crime went down” and “no, we didn’t find any relationship.” The NIJ “case-studies” are basically anecdotal evidence at best.
Fighting Crime with Traffic Stops?
Since every data-driven approach relies on every police department’s statistical methods (CompStat) and every city’s traffic, every data-driven strategy will look different. So let’s look at Austin.
Every week, Chief Acevedo makes CompStat reports. Some of them get published on the City of Austin website. Basically, these are charts of crime for that week, broken down by violent and property crime. There’s also a running plus or minus percent of crime rates, compared to last year.
These don’t mean much by themselves, even though a lot of media organizations report off of them. (You can find them here: http://www.austintexas.gov/department/apd-reports) What the police department supposedly does with this information is look for trends and areas where crime might go up, suddenly, and then put traffic cops in the area and increase patrol.
The APD publishes a Racial Profiling Report every year. In it, they show us maps of traffic stop density, search density, then crime density, and tell us what percent of drivers were white, black, and Hispanic.
To try and figure out where the APD are actually making traffic stops a priority around the city, and if they’re really putting the traffic cops where the most crime happens, I made a map. I took the APD’s traffic stop density map and overlaid it with their crime density map. (Both were included in their 2010 racial profiling report.) With this map I could see whether or not they make the most traffic stops in the highest crime areas.
While some of the highest crime areas matched up with the most traffic stops, this wasn’t always the case. There were a lot of areas with really high crime that had barely any traffic stops. And areas with lots of traffic stops and little crime.
Regardless, increasing traffic stops isn’t even proven to reduce crime. Like I said above, it’s been shown that increasing traffic enforcement might be able to reduce traffic fatalities and possibly robberies, but not necessarily any other violent crimes like rape or murder.
If we look at Austin’s crime rates since Acevedo restructured the APD, we can see that it hasn’t been very effective at reducing crime. Especially when you consider the amount of money thrown at the APD: 267.2 million in 2011, or 38% of the City of Austin budget.
Burglary, a crime that is supposed to go down with increased traffic enforcement, kept on going up, even years after the APD pumped up traffic enforcement. Violent crime, overall, stayed pretty level, and eventually went down a tiny bit. Property crimes stayed pretty level, too, after a couple of small upward spikes. Murder is inconsistent, spiking wildly high and then low.
Traffic fatalities are the only thing that went down drastically and solidly. There’s something, I think we can agree, that traffic enforcement was responsible for.
Overall, the evidence doesn’t show that our doubling the traffic enforcement budget over the past six years has had any real effect on crime in Austin. There hasn’t been that much change in crime statistics since the APD employed data-driven techniques, except for a few blips here or there, and people in 2012 definitely don’t feel as safe as they used to.
New Year’s Eve Attacks, Murder, and APD’s Miserable Failures
This brings us to the attacks and murder on New Year’s Eve. The APD failed on so many fronts. This should not only not be forgotten, but it should go down in the books as one of the biggest Austin Police fuck-ups, ever.
At 2:18am, on New Year's Eve, a 21-year-old woman was attacked by a man. She was walking home from a birthday party when she noticed that someone was following her. She saw a group of people and stopped to talk to them. She watched him pass and started walking home again. On King Street, just off 31^st^, the man surprised her: he grabbed her from behind, took her to the ground, and started smashing her head into the pavement. She screamed, struggled, and finally the man ran. She called 9-1-1 and the police came. According to KXAN’s interview with the victim, "I reported it [to the officer] and he said he was going to check around the neighborhood but he probably wasn't going to find him."
With that attitude, the officer left. No police report was written. A half hour later, Esme Barrera was found. Killed, a short distance from the attack. On New Year’s Day, KXAN brought the attack to the attention of police investigators. Then, over twelve hours after the attack, a police report showed up: exactly at 3:00pm.
I wrote an email to the APD asking them to explain how filing a report twelve hours after the fact fit into their data-driven model. Obviously it didn’t. But currently, according to the region’s commander Troy Gay, “officers should initiate a report when requested by a citizen.”
At the Heritage Meeting, there was a definite sense of frustration with the police. Could the murder have been prevented if they’d listened to the victim at all, and actually searched for the man? Maybe send more than one cop, and actually get out of the car and give it an honest try? The official excuse is that the attack and murder happened on “a very busy night” and that the police tried the best they could.
Commander Gay explained that the Austin Police Department “believes our policy needs to be re-written and clarified so this does not occur again in the future. APD will be revising our policy to reflect that officers will initiate a report if they are provided information that a crime occurred.” But if the APD is actually dedicated to using data-driven, statistical approaches to policing, as is being championed by Art Acevedo, why did such obvious events and necessities get ignored? Under CompStat, an event like this should have been entered into the system immediately so others would be aware that a woman had been attacked in the middle of the night right there. These sorts of policies should have been written years ago, around the same time that we dumped millions into restructuring the department towards data-driven policing.
Who knows, maybe just having the cop sitting there, writing a report could have deterred anything from happening. According to Jack Maple, inventor of CompStat, this is the foundation of the method:
One of the big problems in policing is … you call up the police department and say there are two guys on the corner dealing drugs. The guys see the [police car] and what do they do? They step back into the doorway. The [police] car keeps going. In police work, nobody memorializes that complaint. It drops right off the CAD screen. What should happen is that those complaints should go to narcotics in the local district or precinct to be worked on to see if it's a chronic condition.
That is why you hear people say that they keep calling and calling and calling, and the cops never do anything. It is because that simple complaint is never memorialized and the cops, from one day to the next, don't see that it is a chronic condition.
All of this makes me wonder whatthe cops were doing that night. I looked and was disgusted with what I found.
Happy 2012: Now Bend Over and Take It
The cops were out in full force on New Year’s Eve. It was one of their “no-refusal” weekends, where if you get pulled over for driving drunk, your choices are to (1) voluntarily take a breathalyzer test, (2) voluntarily get your blood drawn, or (3) get your blood drawn by force.
After midnight the cops were overloaded with drunken people driving home (“DWI”), drunken people walking around (“Public Intoxication”), and responding to random chaos (“Theft,” “Burglary of Vehicle,” “Possession Controlled Sub/Narcotic,” “Theft of License Plate”). You get the picture, courtesy of the APD’s online police reporting tool.
Around 1am, Antonio Buehler pulled into the 7-Eleven at North Lamar and West 10^th^ and was getting some gas. He noticed a car pulled over, an obvious DWI stop: the woman driver was getting a field sobriety test, still in her high heels, according to Buehler. Then he heard a girl screaming and saw the police pulling the passenger out of the car and throwing her to her knees. She was yelling, obviously in pain, as the police cuffed her hands behind her back and pulled her arms up, lifting her.
Buehler started taking pictures and asked the police what she did. From this point on, the police’s story is totally different from Buehler’s.
According to Buehler the police aggressively walked up to him, started shoving him, and asked him “who he thought [he] was … or something along those lines.” He was thrown around by the police, taken to the ground, and arrested. He was charged with a felony: “Harassment of a Public Servant”, and is looking at two to ten years in prison.
Police say that Buehler got in the cop’s face and spit on him. The APD are refusing to release dashboard camera footage saying it would interfere with the investigation. Buehler, knowing the police wouldn’t release their evidence which would likely support his version of what happened, made a post on Craigslist asking if anyone had footage of what happened. He got really lucky: someone did.
The video supports what Buehler is saying. He didn’t approach them, from what we can see. What we do see is an officer getting in Buehler’s face and then throwing him around.
Currently, it’s a cop’s word versus not a cop’s … only Buehler isn’t some random punk. He’s basically a model citizen: Iraq War veteran, ex-military officer, West Point graduate, has a master’s from Stanford, and is an all-around respectable guy.
“Highly educated Iraq War veteran, abused by police.” Media picked it up fast. Jeff Ward heard the news and started talking about the story on his afternoon radio show on January 5^th^. Opinion by callers was very anti-Austin cops and then suddenly, Chief Acevedo called into the show and was on the air.
His argument? The slippery slope.
Jeff Ward: “It sounds like we could be arguing something that could be relative here, what is a citizen harassing a cop and what is a fair distance to stand there and start taking pictures?”
Chief Acevedo: “… when you start engaging police officers and when you start distracting them from their business at hand … now you’re starting to somewhat interfere with their official duties and that’s when you’re going down a slippery slope when you might end up getting arrested.”
Jeff Ward: “So can he not say anything?”
Chief Acevedo: “When I’m dealing with you and you start screaming and yelling at me, you’re starting to go down a slippery slope and the bottom line is that’s not a good idea.”
He goes on to repeat himself when asked different questions. Acevedo makes himself clear: don’t mess with my cops.
I don’t know what’s going on in this country, but things are escalating. The cops are getting mean. Look at the Occupy movement. The crackdowns all ended the same: one relatively small nuisance turns into a gigantic militaristic police response. Maybe that hasn’t happened here in Austin, yet, but I can feel the tension in the air. It’s electric.
A few weeks ago, one of our writers was walking to my house at around 11:30 at night. He didn't show up and called me about an hour later. He sounded scared: “Hey I can’t come over.” I asked him what happened.
He was walking to my house and noticed a car shining its brights at him. He heard some yelling, but kept walking. (It’s a somewhat sketchy neighborhood that the police helicopter seems to circle on a weekly basis.) When he turned around, he saw a cop with his gun out, screaming at him to get on the ground. He listened. The cops handcuffed him, searched his pockets, and took his ID. They kept asking him who he was, what he was doing, where he was going, if he’d heard any gunshots, and if he knew the people in a car that’d driven past him. He told them that he heard something, but thought it was fireworks, that he didn’t know anyone in that car, and that he was on his way to a friend’s house. They gave him his ID and told him to “turn around and go home, going the same way you came.” And that was that. Go home.
I tried to look for police reports about the incident, but I wasn’t surprised when I couldn’t find anything. All I could see was a report of a stolen car about an hour earlier. Is this how the police are going to respond to Austin getting bigger and seemingly more dangerous?
The result of the NYPD’s emphasis on numbers seems to be a twisted statistical corruption. Evidence is popping up about mandatory ticketing quotas in New York, and threats for cops who don’t write enough. There are other allegations of cops messing with the categorization of crimes. Some cops have come forward after feeling pressure to downgrade the seriousness of certain cases in order to drive crime rates down. In retrospect, this all seems easy to predict: if you put the cops where the data says to put them, then controlling the data means controlling power. Where there’s power, there’s corruption.
With Acevedo going around talking about how the New Year’s Day murder is a sign that we need to give the APD more money and forces, we need to scrutinize any future structuring of the department. The police department still hasn’t implemented the police reporting changes that Gay told me were necessary, and they didn’t give a time frame.
If Austin’s going to be a safe place to live in the future, even with massive population growth, we’ve gotta be able to trust that the cops will do their jobs. No, fuck that. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about government it’s to never trust them. Make them prove they’re doing their jobs and doing them well. Because if they can’t be trusted to do simple things like look for attackers in the middle of the night, or follow their own model for policing, who knows what else they’re not doing under the hood of official police matters.
Instead of harassing and ticketing us into oblivion, why not work on being there when we actually need you, APD?