Expect larger police presence at SXSW this year

Austin police will be boosting their presence at the South by Southwest festivals this year as pedestrian traffic is expected to soar during the 10-day event that begins Friday.

Police are expecting attendance to grow slightly from the more than 313,000 people that an economic impact analysis said attended last year’s festivals, and they are increasing the number of officers downtown by between 15 percent to 20 percent. Officials didn’t reveal the number of officers expected to work the event.

Business growth downtown to the east of Interstate 35 has meant that shows, especially those not sanctioned by SXSW, have increased the event’s footprint and create more vehicle and pedestrian traffic that police must monitor, officials said. The department hopes the extra officers assigned to traffic management will help reduce auto-pedestrian crashes, which Austin-Travis County EMS officials said made up a chunk of their calls for service during the 2013 event.

“Last year, particularly Friday and Saturday of the music portion, there were more people downtown on all the side streets of Congress than I have seen in 29 years,” said William Manno, police commander over special events.

Last year, EMS estimated a 25 percent increase in call volume during SXSW over the previous year’s festival. This year, first responders will continue to use motorcycles and utility vehicles equipped with stretchers — easier methods to reach patients in crowds, EMS Commander Wesley Hopkins said. The agency also will have a station at Fifth Street and Congress Avenue to treat patients. Hopkins wouldn’t say how many emergency responders will be working during the festival, but he called it a “significant number.”

The Police Department expects to spend $340,000 in overtime on officers for SXSW, a 3 percent increase from last year’s estimate, Manno said. He said the police are also expecting to spend more money paying officers working regular hours than last year, and having more detectives working during the event.

The more robust police staff will also ensure venues abide by their permits. For the first time, the city has staggered when venues have to end shows for the night to help with reducing pedestrian density on the street. Outdoor venues with temporary permits will have to end their shows at 1 a.m., while most brick-and-mortar businesses can end at 2 a.m. or whenever their permits dictate, Manno said.

There will be twice as many public assembly code enforcement teams to enforce those new times. Those teams are made up of police, fire, health and code compliance officials, who will take “a proactive approach” to spotting and stopping public safety risks, including unsafe structures, blocked exits, fire risks or lack of proper permits.

The enforcement team will work together with the Austin Center for Events office, a collaboration of EMS, police, fire, transportation and parks now in its second year, to coordinate safety efforts during SXSW. The command post, similar to the one that was at the Police Department headquarters last year, will be off of Barton Springs Road south of downtown and staffed by a representative from each safety division to share information and coordinate safety tasks.

“The A.C.E office puts us all on the same sheet of music,” Hopkins said.

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