A year after Austin police landed a $1 million federal grant to target crime in North Austin, prostitutes are still trolling for customers near Rundberg Lane and Interstate 35, drug dealers continue to conduct their business, and statistics show reported crime hasn’t changed much in the neighborhoods within the Restore Rundberg initiative.
And after the top police official and the top researcher left the project midyear — neighborhood leaders say they still don’t know why the researcher was replaced — the new leaders say they know they’ll have to work to gain, or regain, the trust of some in the community.
But the program’s leaders say that doesn’t mean no progress has been made after the first year of the three-year project aimed at reducing crime and revitalizing a group of neighborhoods where previous police-led initiatives haven’t made more than a temporary impact.
Police say they have disrupted some of the area’s street crime with a series of operations that sent extra officers to flood crime hot spots, helped the motel owners and managers along Interstate 35 organize to keep criminals out of their rooms and created a blueprint to tackle some of the underlying problems that contribute to crime.
“We realized pretty quickly that this thing was pretty complex,” said police Cmdr. Don Baker, who took over the project in June after Cmdr. Mark Spangler transferred to another unit.
Police decided to focus on Rundberg because of its stubborn crime problem and its network of active, engaged neighborhood associations that could increase the chance of success. Previous smaller-scale projects in the area — with names like Operation Cure, Operation Restore Hope and Operation Good Neighbor — haven’t managed to sustain whatever progress was made in reducing crime or cleaning up problem areas.
With the $1 million grant, Restore Rundberg is more ambitious, designed to last years rather than weeks or months.
Baker said the first year was devoted to assessing the area’s problems before writing a plan to attack the problems with initiatives that will endure after the grant money is gone. Meanwhile, police spent nearly $61,000 of the grant money last year for overtime to do more traditional operations such as paying overtime so more patrol officers could spend more time in high-crime areas on certain weekends.
The people who live and work in the area give Restore Rundberg mixed reviews after one year. Some, like motel manager Stephanie Rollings, are maintaining patient optimism, despite the slow start. “I hate to say this, but the prostitution has gotten worse in front of our hotel,” she said. “But I’ve also seen more of a police presence in the past year. I really think they’re trying.”
Others, such as North Austin Civic Association President John Green, are discouraged. “There’s been constant change over the past year with no continuity of leadership,” he said.
Last month, University of Texas social work professor David Springer unveiled a set of broad recommendations for the final two years of the project, when $850,000 of the $1 million will be spent:
- Begin walking beats and bicycle patrols to create a constant police presence in three main crime hot spots: the Interstate 35-Rundberg Lane area, Sam Rayburn Drive and Northgate Boulevard. Springer said those three areas account for 21 percent of crime in the grant area and about 12 percent of crime citywide.
- Hire a liaison between residents and the Restore Rundberg leadership team.
- Launch a safety and education program aimed at a large immigrant population that often mistrusts police and government.
Springer also recommended organizing landlords and apartment managers in the hot spots so they can work together to help reduce crime and help residents get social services. It’s similar to a strategy that Austin police already have used at the motels strung along the I-35 access road near Rundberg, where prostitutes and drug dealers often try to rent rooms to do business.
Last year, motel managers and owners agreed to share information about people they’ve kicked out or turned away so criminals can’t simply walk to the next motel for a room.
Matt Franklin, manager of the Red Roof Inn, said he and the manager of the Austin Suites next door are comparing notes about problem guests. He said he sees fewer prostitutes working on nearby Powell Lane, but it’s still a battle to keep trespassers off the property, even with security guards on duty at night.
Franklin said he’s excited about the prospect of police walking the streets near his motel.
“Once they control those (hot spots), it’s going to run a lot of people out of here,” he said.
Baker said officers on the walking and bike beats will be evaluated based on the relationships they build with neighbors rather than how many arrests they make. For example, officers will encourage prostitutes to get into drug treatment programs rather than simply arresting them over and over.
The plan was originally supposed to come from University of Texas sociology professor David Kirk. But after nine months of researching and writing recommendations, Kirk was replaced by Springer, who did his own research and recommendations.
Kirk’s departure rankled some neighborhood leaders who had come to like and trust him. Green, the North Austin Civic Association president, said the Austin Police Department has refused their request to see Kirk’s recommendations and hasn’t given a reason why Kirk was replaced.
Replacing Kirk was “a real waste of resources and opportunity,” Green said.
Baker and Spangler both said they didn’t force Kirk out. Spangler said he invited faculty from the School of Social Work to assist Kirk, not replace him. Kirk, who prepared a 21-page list of recommendations, said he “was never given a clear reason from APD why they wanted to take the research in a different direction, but I assume it was because they wished to pursue a different strategy than the one I recommended.”
Springer said Kirk’s work wasn’t discarded; it will be added as an appendix to their report to the Department of Justice.
Springer added that he and his students had to rush to do their work by the end of 2013 and didn’t have much time to connect with the community — something he wants to remedy this year.
Green said neighbors have been asked for their input at a series of meetings, but he’s seen no indication that Restore Rundberg’s leaders are doing anything with residents’ suggestions. For example, he said, neighbors have asked the police to hire a professional project manager for the past year, but “it just fell on deaf ears.”
Nick Haigh, the newly elected vice chair of the North Lamar Contact Team, one of the neighborhood groups in the area, said he has “very little interest in the conflicts over the last year” but understands that there’s “a lot of dissatisfaction from folks in the neighborhood, feeling they were being left out of the process.”
Haigh said he hopes that hiring a community organizer can help improve connections between police, researchers and the community.
In the end, Baker said, success or failure will come down to what, if any, positive changes Restore Rundberg can make in North Austin. That will be measured through crime data, neighborhood focus groups and surveys.
“We need to show results,” Baker said.
Dave Harmon has reported and edited for the Statesman since 1995, covering criminal courts, county government, the Texas-Mexico border and the Legislature before joining the investigative team. He earned a statewide journalism award in the late 1990s for a three-day series about an anti-crime initiative in Northeast Austin.
Life and crime in Rundberg area
- Median income is just over $21,000. Rents are mostly in the $400 to $750 per month range, and a third of residents live in poverty.
- Nearly two-thirds of residents speak a language other than English
- 9 percent of Austin’s crime happens in the area, which covers just 2 percent of the city’s footprint.
- One of every three prostitution arrests in Austin occurs there.
Read previous articles about Restore Rundberg with this story online at mystatesman.com.