Who will help Austin enforce its traffic laws?

By | October 27, 2023
Who will help Austin enforce its traffic laws?
Who will help Austin enforce its traffic laws?

Thursday, February 24, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Although Austin continues to address dangerous driving behaviors through engineering and educational efforts, traffic fatalities continue to happen. The issue “remains a critical one for the city to analyze and address moving forward,” according to a follow-up audit presented to the City Council Audit & Finance Committee on Wednesday. Despite the city’s efforts, the number of people killed in crashes has increased over the last three years, with speeding cited as the primary factor in one-quarter of fatalities.

The Austin Transportation Department has developed better ways to coordinate with internal and external partners, worked with the Austin Police Department to improve access to data about collisions and expanded traffic safety education efforts to target dangerous behaviors, according to Kate Murdock, auditor in charge of the follow-up reporting.

The only traffic safety recommendation the city did not adopt was related to the use of red-light cameras. After this recommendation was made, the Texas Legislature passed a law prohibiting the use of such cameras.

Noting that most fatalities occur late at night, transportation chief Rob Spillar told the committee, “We use transportation dollars to pay police officer overtime to enforce late at night, for drunk driving, red-light running and speeding. We’ve done that for several years … but staff shortages have hit several of our departments.”

Spillar added, “What we’re trying to do is expand” to using deputies with the sheriff’s department and constables, each of whom is authorized to enforce state law. Even though those officers can’t enforce city ordinances, the behaviors the city hopes to curtail, such as speeding, running red lights and drunk driving, are violations of state law.

Lewis Leff, city transportation safety officer, noted that only licensed peace officers are allowed to do traffic enforcement. In response to a question about when the city might anticipate using deputies and constables for traffic enforcement, Leff said after meeting with every Council office, his department would “reach back out to Travis County staff we’ve been working with.” He continued, “APD has been helping to set up some of those conversations with the sheriff’s office and constables. We’ve had on-and-off conversations for a while now to see what a program like this would look like.” He outlined what sounded like a lengthy process to reach an interlocal agreement on the matter.

Council Member Kathie Tovo suggested speeding up the timetable, saying that they might even have a work session briefing on the matter sooner rather than later. Her colleagues on the committee seemed to be in agreement.

However, when the Austin Monitor reached out to Sheriff Sally Hernandez to find out what she thought about the arrangement, spokesperson Kristen Dark said it came as a surprise to the sheriff’s office. “We don’t have any knowledge of this. No one has talked to any of us,” she said. While she had received other inquiries from members of the media, she had not heard anything from the city nor seen any documentation on the matter.

The Monitor asked two Council members who serve on the committee, Mackenzie Kelly and Tovo, whether they could find out what the Transportation Department meant when it referred to conversations with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. Both said they got similar responses from Spillar, who told them the city had spoken with “a group of law enforcement representatives,” including someone from the sheriff’s office, last fall. He noted that they had been working most closely with Precinct 3 Constable Stacy Suits. Transportation spokesperson Jack Flagler confirmed that the city had primarily been speaking with Suits, but added that someone in the city would be reaching out to have another conversation with the sheriff’s office next week.

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Who will help Austin enforce its traffic laws?