They came to reassure a public upset and fearful after three seemingly random attacks targeting women running near Lady Bird Lake in the last month by lacing up and joining them.
Roughly two dozen strong in gray shirts emblazoned “Austin Police SWAT,” shorts and training shoes, officers gathered in the predawn hours Thursday to run and walk the hike-and-bike paths that line both sides of Lady Bird Lake.
“This is the heart and soul of Austin. We have such a huge running community,” said officer Rafael Rosales, a 17-year veteran of the force who came up with the idea. “To have people discouraged to come out here… it’s just sad.”
Beneath the roar of cars passing overhead on the MoPac Boulevard bridge, the police were welcomed with open arms. One runner passing by the group fist-bumped an officer, another shouted out, “Thank you, guys,” and others joined them in walking or running the trails.
They organized themselves into smaller groups, based on distance: One would walk a 2-mile loop, a second would run three miles, the third would go for four — all at a relatively gentle pace. One set of groups would leave a little after 6 a.m. and the second took off a bit after 7 a.m.
“People can come out and run with us and feel safe,” said Sgt. Jamie Alexander, who said the run would not be just a one-time thing. “This is the first of what will hopefully be a twice-a-week thing.”
The next run, he said, could take place Monday morning.
“It’s us trying to support the running community,” Alexander added.
Thursday’s run came as Austin police continued to investigate Wednesday’s reported attack on a woman running on a trail near the 1700 block of South Lakeshore Boulevard, a rapidly developing stretch of Southeast Austin off Riverside Drive. The victim described her attacker as a man in his 40s, about 5-foot-11, who spoke Spanish.
The assault was the third in a string of similar incidents, one of which Austin police believe they have solved.
A week before the Southeast Austin attack, a man tried to rape a woman who was running along the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail near East Avenue and Cummings Street, but he was scared off by a good Samaritan carrying a handgun.
Austin police have charged 22-year-old Richard McEachern, whose criminal record includes arrests for lewdness and domestic violence, with sexual assault in the attack.
Almost a month earlier on Aug. 22, another woman was assaulted while running on Austin High School’s track, which sits near the MoPac bridge where Thursday’s police run began. Police say they are still investigating that case.
“Anytime (people) see anything suspicious, anything that makes them feel uncomfortable — especially down here on the hike-and-bike trail — by all means, call 911,” Alexander said. “We’ll send someone out to check it out.”