Surge in violent crimes putting Austin police on edge


Concerns about violent crime rate arise even as Austin is considered among the nation’s safest for its size.

Deadly violence and dangerous gunfire in the past seven days highlight law enforcement’s need for urgency.

It began just before 8 p.m. March 10, when police found a man who was barely alive near a bus stop at East Seventh and Comal streets after being stabbed.

Medics did their best to save 51-year-old Glen Raymond Burford and rushed him to University Medical Center Brackenridge. He died a short time later.

At a time when tourists were pouring into Austin from around the globe for the South by Southwest festivals, the next week would bring a wave of violence to Central Texas that left five more people dead, four facing criminal charges and at least seven other suspects who haven’t been identified or charged.

The incidents highlight an alarming trend for Austin police: As the city’s population continues to swell, violent crime — from murders to assaults — continue ticking upward. Last year, violent crime increased 10 percent, and the city saw more homicides than it had in years.

RELATED: View the Statesman homicide database

While police say they are concerned about all violent crime, they are now focusing on what they say is a surge in armed robberies in which gun-carrying perpetrators are firing shots in the air — and sometimes, at victims — in an escalation of what officers have typically seen.

“These are bad folks that are out there committing these crimes, and they are a major focus for the Police Department now,” said Assistant Police Chief Joseph Chacon, who oversees the department’s violent crime division.

Police this week were still compiling statistics to help fully understand the scope and magnitude of violence and to compare it with previous years.

But in reviewing robberies from Jan. 1 through March 13, for instance, victims reported 187 such crimes, including robberies of four banks, 28 businesses and 155 people. In 92 instances, the robbers brandished a gun; and in nine cases, they fired the weapons — something police have said they previously rarely saw.

RELATED: Weekend attacks lead to 2 deaths, no arrests

About five hours after Burford collapsed on the street, a trio of thieves robbed and shot Michael Sanders, lead guitarist and vocalist for Löwin, as he walked to his home in East Austin after watching a show at Hotel Vegas on Sixth Street.

The bullet went through his shoulder and lodged in a car behind him. He said the men who attacked him were hiding in the shadows, and he believed they were targeting South by Southwest attendees.

Violent crime worries rise

Being a safe city has long been a point of pride for officials — and especially the police. Concerns about Austin’s violent crime rate come even as the city is considered among the nation’s safest for its size.

Violent crime is seeing a modest increase nationally, according to a recent survey by the Major City Police Chiefs Association that found that all types of violent crime — homicides, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults and nonfatal shootings — had gone up about 6 percent from 2015 to 2016.

However, a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that crime overall is the lowest it has been in a generation.

“While there’s no evidence of a nationwide trend toward more murders and other violent crime, violent crime rates were up in 13 of the 30 cities studied,” a recent article about the Brennan Center’s work said.

Austin was cited as part of that study and identified as a major U.S. city with rising crime.

“We’ve seen some pretty high-profile incidents that have occurred that are very violent in nature,” Chacon said. “Obviously, we are going to put investigative resources and proactive measures in place to make sure that we are not seeing a trend.”

Chacon said Austin police had already begun implementing such efforts to stymie violent crime toward the end of 2016, which was the first year in roughly a decade that Austin’s violent crime numbers went up.

For instance, he said each of the city’s patrol divisions have been conducting special initiatives to find crime hot spots and “disrupt them through officer presence and quick response.”

They’ve also been adjusting staffing levels to time officer presence with predicted outbreaks, and have increased the number of foot and bike patrols in some parts of the city. Officers also have done more education efforts in areas where crime has increased, including some apartment complexes, to highlight the need for awareness among residents going to and from their homes at night or the need for additional lighting.

“We don’t think things are out of control by any means, but we are constantly taking note of where we are to make sure we don’t get to that out-of-control point,” he said.

Week of violent encounters

But the past seven days in Austin highlight law enforcement’s need for urgency.

An hour after the attack on the local musician, a man pulled out a box cutter during an argument in the 700 block of East Seventh Street and slashed another man’s arm before citizens and police broke up the melee.

Police grabbed the suspected attacker, identified in court records as 27-year-old Luis Uvaldo Rodriguez, almost immediately.

On Sunday evening, Jose Pedro Dominguez-Campos was gunned down in front of his home on Bird Creek Drive in North Austin.

Police issued an arrest warrant for the suspect in the shooting, 34-year-old Jose Medel Martinez-Lopez, but he still hasn’t been found.

RELATED: Man charged with murder after shooting in North Austin

It was a bloody beginning to the weekend, but it didn’t stop there.

As Austin headed into the work week, four people were shot dead throughout Travis County, and three were arrested after weapons were fired in separate incidents across the city.

According to an arrest affidavit, Samuel Sepeda, 44, fired three shots into another vehicle with a man and woman inside on Santa Rita Street in East Austin on Monday evening.

Carl Cleveland, 24, was part of a duo who Austin police say fired several shots at a man before stealing his car at Decker and Loyola lanes around 3 a.m. Wednesday, according to court records. Cleveland led officers on a car chase on Interstate 35 into Hays County that reached speeds of more than 120 mph before he crashed in San Marcos and was arrested, police said.

On Wednesday afternoon, a man in his 20s was fatally shot in the 6400 block of Springdale Road near Manor Road, and later that night, two others were fatally shot in western Travis County near Lakeway at 7:40 p.m. A third person was injured in the shooting, but survived.

Then, in the early hours of Thursday, police arrested a man they suspected of firing several shots in the 500 block of East Seventh Street around 2:30 a.m.

That evening, Travis County deputies were investigating another homicide in the 14000 block of Thermal Drive.

Chacon said that, even with a continuing uptick in crime, Austin still ranks among the nation’s safest cities and that residents and visitors alike can and should feel safe here.

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