On ‘Dirty Sixth,’ Austin police practice art of managing crowds, chaos


Highlights

The fatal shooting of Landon Nobles was a major departure from the low-key but chaotic Sixth Street norm.

Calls for police on the block where the shooting took place were down 14 percent before the incident.

Austin police Lt. Dustin Lee stands on the corner of Sixth and Trinity streets on a Friday in June, a perfect vantage point in the middle of a bar-lined stretch of downtown. Lee is just a month away from the early morning chaos of May 7, when police say Landon Nobles fired a gun amid a street confrontation — and less than a block from where Nobles was shot dead by police.

The standard for a good night for cops working this beat is one during which they can stand and observe.

The data are on Lee’s side. Requests for police assistance in the 400 block of East Sixth Street — where the May 7 fight broke out — have dropped 14 percent since 2015, according to an American-Statesman analysis of more than 2,800 calls received from the area between Jan. 1 and May 7 for the past three years.

The stretch of seven blocks known as “Dirty Sixth” is barricaded and patrolled by roughly 35 officers on the average Friday night. Some are longtime veterans who have policed downtown for years. Others are fresh-faced and straight out of the academy. Lee is their boss. Although only appointed to the post in December, he is an old Austin hand, a graduate of the University of Texas who has been with the Austin Police Department since 1996.

“Sixth Street is more about managing than anything else,” Lee says. “You want to be able to go to Sixth Street and have a good time.”

PHOTOS: View a gallery of images from Austin’s Sixth Street after 11 p.m.

For years, the young have flocked here, pouring into the bars and clubs and music venues — the girls in skirts and stilettos or summer dresses and sandals, the guys in shirts and slacks or tees and shorts — to be part of the whirling mix of music and color and sweat and booze and drugs. They come alone, as couples, in groups, bouncing from bar to club to bar, turning Sixth Street into a river of bodies, looking for the next great thing as the night grows later and slowly becomes morning.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, they’re not breaking the law, so you’re just managing what they do,” Lee adds.

Beyond the crowds, there is Andres Vaso, who has dribbled a soccer ball up and down “Dirty Sixth” for the past year or two, in part because the crowd makes for easier practice than setting up cones and because it’s a way to meet women.

“I’m the only one out here not breaking the law,” he jokes.

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Then there’s muscle-bound YouTube performer Connor Murphy, who, as part of a gag, poses as a Pokemon nerd, only to take off his shirt and lie down on the street, encouraging passing women to play with fidget spinners on his chest — all on camera, of course.

In the midst of all this stand Lee and his officers, who hope this Friday will stay quiet.

One man is so drunk, he passes out next to a tree in a planter box. An ambulance is called about midnight to take him to a hospital for treatment. He is, as one officer puts it, “too drunk for jail.”

The scene is in the 500 block of Trinity, just around the corner from where a fight that immediately preceded Noble’s death spun out of control, and is far more representative of what cops there deal with on a regular basis, the Statesman’s analysis of crime data found.

WATCH: Video shows run-up to fatal police shooting of Sixth Street

From January through May 7, there were 872 requests for police assistance on the block, down from 920 for the same period in 2016 and 1,016 in 2015. Over those roughly four months in 2017, only 24 of the calls were for disturbances.

That pattern appeared to be largely holding during the first week of May, immediately before the shooting. From May 1 through May 7, police received 46 calls from the block, almost exactly the same as the 45 calls received in 2016 and 44 in 2015.

It’s part of a larger, longer trend. “We just don’t have a whole lot of fights anymore,” Lee said.

The clock ticks past 1 a.m. The revelry’s toll is beginning to show. The curbs are filled with people looking to take a moment from the booming music, the crowds, the piercing lasers and strobe light flashes of the clubs.

The clock keeps ticking and the slouches grow and the stumbles become more common. DJ after DJ, in bar after bar, begins to make “last call” announcements, heralding the end of the night. Lee watches over it all, his posture just as ramrod straight as it was at the night’s start. The clock ticks past 2 a.m., and the bars begin to close, sending patrons pouring out onto the streets. The crowds grow as friends look for friends, and groups look for food, and couples old and new look for rides home. There are screams of happiness and a few shouts of anger, but the peace holds and the clock never stops moving. It’s a little after 2:30 a.m. now, and the crowds have thinned. A convoy of police cars forms and slowly starts moving, signaling the reopening of Sixth Street to traffic.

The night is done. The heat still stifles. The throngs have departed. The night was good.



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