A few years ago, Barbara Williams said, she carried a pistol and a knife with her everywhere she went. She called police after hearing the cries of a little girl assaulted outside her window. She watched her neighbors openly dealing drugs out of the front doors of their North Austin apartments. She said she put a sign on her own door: “This is not the drug house.”
Now things have changed, Williams said. She doesn’t feel a need for weapons, nor her door sign. The thick brush where the little girl was attacked is gone, replaced with well-kept green space. Gone too, it seems, are the dope dealers.
“There’s no drugs around — not even weed,” she said. “The police kicked all these doors in, and now it’s peaceful. I can’t even hear my neighbors.”
Changes like that are what Austin officials were aiming for when they launched the Restore Rundberg program in 2014, after more than a year of planning and community outreach. The program, funded with a $1 million U.S. Justice Department grant, added frequent foot patrols in three targeted hot spots and helped establish neighborhood groups and student programming.
The grant officially wrapped up in September, and University of Texas researchers submitted a final report on the findings this month. They found that the hot spots saw dramatic drops in crime, while the area as a whole saw a lesser drop.
Reports of violent crime in Williams’ hot spot, near Powell Lane and Sam Rayburn Drive, fell 82 percent from 2011 to 2016, while it declined 53 percent in a hot spot near Rundberg Lane and Interstate 35 and dropped 45 percent near Rundberg Lane and Research Boulevard. Violent crime in the Rundberg area as a whole went down 4.5 percent.
Researchers have tried to track whether it’s popping up elsewhere. Some areas within Rundberg that had high crime, but weren’t picked as hot spots, saw a slight uptick, police said. But in general, the data suggest most of the crime wasn’t displaced to other areas, said David Springer, the UT professor who authored the report.
The impact on property crime is less clear. Property crime decreased within the Rundberg area 16 percent from 2013 to 2015. But it decreased in the rest of the city by roughly the same amount — nearly 17 percent — largely because of a drop in burglaries, according to the report.
What happens next will be up for discussion ahead of the city’s 2018 budget.
The UT report recommends Austin pony up funding to continue the programs the grant began. The recommendations include:
• Finding funding for salaries so Austin police can continue walking beats in the Rundberg hot spots four to five times per week. Since the grant ended in September, the beat has become once a week.
• Allocating money to better track statistics on what officers encounter in the area.
• Continuing a “marketplace” of community meetings. That program helped residents, particularly immigrants, network, but tapered off later in the Rundberg program.
• Put police in charge of continuing efforts to create coalitions to fix up apartments. Officers described it as challenging to bring different groups together in the area.
• Fund a full-time community engagement coordinator, for about $79,500 annually, to focus on Rundberg and one or two other areas in the city.
• Giving $50,000 to $150,000 annually to student programs in the Rundberg area, including a “district” formed by students and teachers in different schools to work on projects and a program to mentor at-risk kids.
• Provide resources as needed to the Rundberg Revitalization Team. The team, comprising volunteers, is expected to continue neighborhood beautification projects, community outreach and organizing.
Those efforts would continue to focus on the same hot spots, and potentially add new ones.
Council Member Greg Casar, whose district includes Rundberg, said he generally supported the report’s recommendations, but wouldn’t decide whether to support funding them in next year’s budget until after more discussion with stakeholders.
“This report shows that (hot spot policing) can be an effective strategy if done right,” Casar said. “A lot of people have concerns about hot spot policing displacing crime to other areas. … The Police Department is starting to look at that.”
Change in the neighborhood
Other residents near the Powell Lane hot spot agreed that the change in their neighborhood was significant.
Deborah Denis said she no longer sees people hawking drugs in the street. Isabel Venova also said the police presence helped cut down on drug dealers. Now, she’s happy having her kids play in the cul-de-sac in front of her house.
The shifts didn’t happen immediately, police said.
Rundberg, a 5.75-square-mile area north of Research Boulevard, was home to 5 percent of Austin’s population but 12 percent of its violent crime and 34 percent of its prostitution incidents in 2012, before the Restore Rundberg effort began. A third of the population is under the poverty line, many are refugees or immigrants, and open-air drug dealing, prostitution and nuisance properties were common in the area.
When Austin police began focusing on the hot spots in 2014, they started with a hard-line method of 100 percent enforcement, officer Ray Kianes said. They would patrol the areas heavily, focus on any infraction and arrest anyone with warrants.
It didn’t work.
“That was not affecting any kind of violent crime statistics,” Kianes said. “We started to change our approach. We started to survey the community. We took the neighborhood planning projects and we read through all of those to see, what is the community asking for?”
They instead began trying to engage with community members without writing tickets. They recruited former gang members to create community groups. They brought in homelessness resources. They responded to nuisance issues residents told them about.
Perhaps more significant than the actual crime numbers were people’s perceptions of them. The number of people police met on the streets who reported they “felt safe” increased from 34 percent to 74 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to informal officer surveys.
Police Cmdr. Donald Baker said residents compared officers to Mormon missionaries for how often they knocked on doors. But that presence helped officers find out how visible such issues as prostitution and catcalling were to children and how that affected their decisions to go outdoors or to school, he said.
“Now, in Hot Spot 2, we have more calls about kids riding their bikes in the streets than the prostitutes,” he said. “To me, that’s a success.”
What we reported
The Austin American-Statesman has chronicled the Restore Rundberg initiative since 2013, with in-depth stories about the city’s efforts to target drug activity and prostitution, cite blighted properties, work with motel owners to deter crime and partner with relief organizations to help residents. Click here to find all of our previous coverage.
See a video about a former gang-affiliated drug dealer who fought for change in Rundberg and in his own life, with this story on mystatesman.com.
A link to the final University of Texas report on Restore Rundberg is also posted with this story online.