A year after fatal SXSW crash, city beefs up security

It’s been one year since a suspected drunken driver killed four and injured 20 others by disregarding police barricades and driving into a crowd during South by Southwest.

This year, the festival will have stronger street barriers and its greatest police presence ever, an American-Statesman analysis found.

City officials were reluctant to call the beefed-up security a reaction to last year’s tragedy, but in interviews regarding traffic and enforcement plans, they acknowledged that the crash played at least a part in public safety decisions that involved multiple city departments and South by Southwest staff.

“What happened last year is something that we’re mindful of, but we’re always thinking of the safety of people,” said Gordon Derr, assistant director of Austin Transportation Department.

Over the next nine days, more police will be downtown than during any previous South by Southwest festival to shore up more stringent traffic barriers, improve response times, enforce city codes, facilitate traffic and conduct crowd control. The city has taken a wide view of improving public safety downtown since last year, adding new street closures, more cameras downtown and improving lighting on Sixth Street.

And for the first time ever, a team of Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents from across the state will assist Austin police in enforcing alcohol laws and regulations.

“It isn’t a reaction to any one event,” said William Manno, head of the city’s Austin Center for Events, during a press briefing Wednesday.

Citing security concerns, officials wouldn’t say exactly how many extra officers will be downtown every night assisting the 36 to 48 officers that staff downtown on a typical night. However, several new enforcement teams, a group dedicated solely to responding to 911 calls in the area and a 120-officer-strong crowd control team will be on hand, police said.

Additional officers will also be assigned to each and every street closure along with a patrol vehicle left idling with its lights flashing. And as the festival shifts its focus from SXSW Interactive to SXSW Music, the barricades and amount of officers moved from their regular duties to monitor the crowds will increase.

The patrol vehicles will be used to block fire lanes and shore up the typical orange-and-white barricades that will block off street lanes. The barricades will also be weighed down and reinforced by connectable water-filled barriers.

As many as 87 patrol cars will be placed next to the barricades during the music festival, which amounts to about 13 percent of the Austin Police Department’s total fleet of marked patrol cars, according to figures provided by police.

Officers will be on hand to move the patrol cars to allow emergency vehicles to come and go as needed.

The addition of patrol cars and reinforced barriers was made to prevent or slow down a driver attempting to go through closed streets, officials said.

At its last meeting in December, the prior City Council approved waiving $350,000 in city fees and not billing for the estimated $600,000 in city services such as police and barricades that will be provided during SXSW, city spokeswoman Alicia Dean said.

Police labor costs associated with the festival have gone over $600,000 in each of the last three years, according to figures provided by police. In 2014, labor costs during the festival topped $830,000, and in 2013 additional police staff amounted to about $950,000 in costs.

‘Huge improvement’

Bill Curtis, an attorney who is representing crash victims in a lawsuit, said the plan for this year is a “huge improvement” compared with previous festivals, pointing in particular to the additional barriers meant to keep cars from driving where they’re not supposed to.

“I just wonder why it took so long and such a terrible tragedy to make them (SXSW) do the right thing,” Curtis said.

Dan Endres, whose daughter Mason Endres was severely injured in last year’s crash, said it was a “freak” occurrence. Mason Endres is attending the SXSW festival again this year, he said.

“I’m a dad, so I’m going to be nervous,” Endres said. “But I wouldn’t expect there to ever be something like that (the crash) again.”

Even though the crash was a rare occurrence, it spurred another discussion: whether Austin has a drinking problem.

A Statesman analysis found Austin spends more per capita on alcohol than any other Texas city.

Lawsuits filed by victims of the crash said that SXSW organizers were well aware of the city’s high alcohol consumption and could have used that knowledge to better protect festival attendees. One legal filing said the crash was “foreseeable, and therefore a preventable tragedy.”

“We all know the abuse of alcohol, overserving of alcohol, serving of alcohol to minors and minors in possession of alcohol is part of the problem and challenge we have during South by Southwest, which is our No. 1 event of the year,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Wednesday, warning that many of the expected 200,000 people attending events each day will be intoxicated.

More enforcement

In a post-festival examination last year, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission joined discussions with city staff about how the sale and abuse of alcohol could be better handled. As part of a joint decision with the city, the TABC will bring in more than 30 agents from across the state to bolster the enforcement of alcohol laws and regulations.

“This is the first time we’ve done it for South by Southwest, and it makes sense,” said Capt. Harry Nanos from the TABC’s Austin district office. “It’s a big event, and it’s good to have additional personnel here.”

Agents will be looking for venues suspected of overserving patrons and selling to people under 21, Nanos said. Last year, TABC agents confiscated more than 100 fake IDs during the event, Nanos said.

They also will be looking for venues with improper signage and making sure bars aren’t turning over their entire operations to the promotional events they host.

“When you have people that come in and take control of your bar, a lot of things could go wrong,” Nanos said. “They may not know the laws of the state.”

One advocacy group formed after the crash, ATX Safer Streets, has called for safer transportation options for those who partake in Austin’s drinking culture, such as expanding bus routes and schedules and legalizing ride-booking services such as Uber and Lyft.

The group sees another initiative – a sobriety center or “drunk tank” – as working toward the same end. Criminal justice, law enforcement and medical officials are nearly finished crafting a plan for a sobriety center, where intoxicated people could sober up instead of going to jail, and they will soon share it with the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court, said Andy Brown, the chairman of a city-county working group.

But even though the crash provided a sense of urgency about the issue of public intoxication, Neil Diaz, business development director for advocacy group ATX Safer Streets, said some things are nearly impossible to predict.

For instance, he said, last year’s tragedy on Red River Street involved other factors, such as the driver attempting to flee police.

“There were many things to take into consideration … and as much as the city would have liked to have been better prepared, it is hard to prepare for the unexpected,” Diaz said. “There were multiple elements that led to that horrible scenario. It wasn’t just an incident of driving impaired.”

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