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Austin Considers Separating Transit Security from Police

As a part of reshaping the duties of the police department, city and Capital Metro officials are considering a new police force entirely devoted to regional public transit. Many details of the proposed security team are still undecided.

(TNS) — As Austin, Texas, city officials work to reshape the roles and responsibilities of its Police Department, regional public transit agency Capital Metro is seeking to create its own police force.

CapMetro, which runs Austin's buses and commuter rail, currently relies on Austin police to respond to calls and provide security. As the city and its transportation system continue to grow, officials said they want to build a transport-specific security team.

"APD, although stretched, is providing a good service for us. ... But when you're expanding a service, as we're currently in the process of doing, it's good to prepare for what's coming," said Gardner Tabon, CapMetro's chief safety officer.

Austin voters last year approved a $7.1 billion expansion of its transit system, including adding two light rail lines.

On Monday, CapMetro's staff will seek approval from its board of directors to hire a consultant to shape the future police department and to include funding in next year's budget for the consultant and research. The staff has recommended hiring Wanda Dunham, former chief of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

Part of the consultant's job would be to organize opportunities for the public to share what they want to see in a CapMetro police chief and how CapMetro officers should be trained.

CapMetro officials on Thursday said they are unsure how much the proposed police department would cost or how many officers they are looking to hire, adding that the consultant will help determine that.

CapMetro currently spends about $2.9 million a year employing Austin police officers on a part-time basis to provide security and to respond to any calls that on-duty police would classify as low-priority calls.

The part-time officers respond to about 350 calls a month. CapMetro has seen an increase in calls each year over the past several years, which CapMetro officials attributed to population growth. The rate flattened during the pandemic, but calls did not decrease.

"The amount of police work that's currently being done by part-time officers will be shifted to this full-time department," said Darryl Jamail, CapMetro's director of public safety and emergency management. However, "going forward, we'll still need to have that partnership with APD for large special events."

Roughly 80% of CapMetro customers said security on Austin public transportation is good, CapMetro officials said Thursday, citing a recent survey. Customers did report that they would feel safer with more cameras and more uniformed CapMetro staff or police officers.

About 63% of front-line CapMetro staff said security needs to be improved, the survey found.

"It's wonderful that our customers are indicating that they feel safe," Tabon said. "They also indicated they would like to see a presence."

Most of the security incidents CapMetro bus operators come across are situations they want to approach cautiously, such as having to wake up someone who's fallen asleep on a bus, said Dottie Watkins, CapMetro's chief operating officer.

"Some people, when you wake them up, they're nice, lovely people, but some people wake up fighting. ... We need folks that are able to support us in doing that," she said. "We need folks that are able to help us move people along, when there are people loitering at bus stops or getting in the way of our ability to operate services."

A key part of CapMetro's new public safety plan is the addition of community intervention specialists and public safety ambassadors — unarmed social workers who will also respond to calls for service, officials said. CapMetro has so far hired two community intervention specialists, who would be trained social workers, and is in the process of hiring 15 public safety ambassadors.

CapMetro plans to have 25 public safety ambassadors by the end of the next fiscal year, Tabon said. CapMetro also recently hired Brian Robinson, public safety supervisor, to oversee the ambassadors.

"We want to have on staff social workers, whose sole job is to help us, as an organization, better respond to the issues of homelessness, substance abuse and mental health as they intersect in the transit system. ... We want to really make sure that we're not saying, 'Hey this guy has caused a problem, let's call a cop,' when what we really needed was a social worker," Watkins said.

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