Vi­o­lent crime surge has Austin po­lice on edge

De­spite wave of vi­o­lence, area still among na­tion’s safest, of­fi­cials say.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Wil­son and Tony Plo­het­ski md­wil­son@states­man.com tplo­het­ski@states­man.com

It be­gan just be­fore 8 p.m. March 10, when po­lice found a man who was barely alive near a bus stop at East Sev­enth and Co­mal streets after be­ing stabbed.

Medics did their best to save 51-year-old Glen Ray­mond Bur- ford and rushed him to Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter Brack­en­ridge. He died a short time later.

At a time when tourists were pour­ing into Austin from around the globe for the South by South­west fes­ti­vals, the next week would bring a wave of vi­o­lence to Cen­tral Texas that left five more peo­ple dead, four fac­ing crim­i­nal charges and at least seven other sus­pects who haven’t been iden­ti­fied or charged.

The in­ci­dents high­light an alarm­ing trend for Austin po­lice: As the city’s pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to swell, vi­o­lent crime — from mur­ders to as­saults — con­tin­ues tick­ing up­ward. Last year, vi­o­lent crime in­creased 10 per­cent, and the city saw more homi­cides than it had in years.

While po­lice say they are con­cerned about all vi­o­lent crime, they are now fo­cus­ing on what they say is a surge in armed rob­beries in which gun-car­ry­ing per­pe­tra­tors are fir­ing shots in the air — and some­times, at vic­tims — in an es­ca­la­tion of what

of­fi­cers have typ­i­cally seen.

“Th­ese are bad folks that are out there com­mit­ting th­ese crimes, and they are a ma­jor fo­cus for the Po­lice De­part­ment now,” said As­sis­tant Po­lice Chief Joseph Cha­con, who over­sees the de­part­ment’s vi­o­lent crime di­vi­sion.

Po­lice this week were still com­pil­ing sta­tis­tics to help fully un­der­stand the scope and mag­ni­tude of the vi­o­lence and to com­pare it with pre­vi­ous years.

But in re­view­ing rob­beries from Jan. 1 through March 13, for in­stance, vic­tims re­ported 187 such crimes, in­clud­ing rob­beries of four banks, 28 busi­nesses and 155 peo­ple. In 92 in­stances, the rob­bers bran­dished a gun; and in nine cases, they fired the weapons — some­thing po­lice have said they pre­vi­ously rarely saw.

About five hours after Bur­ford col­lapsed on the street, a trio of thieves robbed and shot Michael San­ders, lead gui­tarist and vo­cal­ist for Löwin, as he walked to his home in East Austin after watch­ing a show at Ho­tel Ve­gas on Sixth Street.

The bul­let went through his shoul­der and lodged in a car be­hind him. He said the men who at­tacked him were hid­ing in the shad­ows, and he be­lieved they were tar­get­ing South by South­west at­ten­dees.

Vi­o­lent crime wor­ries rise

Austin’s be­ing a safe city has long been a point of pride for of­fi­cials — and es­pe­cially the po­lice. Con­cerns about Austin’s vi­o­lent crime rate come even as the city is con­sid­ered among the na­tion’s safest for its size.

Vi­o­lent crime is see­ing a mod­est in­crease na­tion­ally, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey by the Ma­jor City Po­lice Chiefs As­so­ci­a­tion that found that all types of vi­o­lent crime — homi­cides, rapes, rob­beries, ag­gra­vated as­saults and non­fa­tal shoot­ings — had gone up about 6 per­cent from 2015 to 2016.

How­ever, a re­cent re­port by the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice at the New York Univer­sity School of Law found that crime over­all is the low­est it has been in a gen­er­a­tion.

“While there’s no ev­i­dence of a na­tion­wide trend to­ward more mur­ders and other vi­o­lent crime, vi­o­lent crime rates were up in 13 of the 30 cities stud­ied,” a re­cent ar­ti­cle about the Bren­nan Cen­ter’s work said.

Austin was cited as part of that study and iden­ti­fied as a ma­jor U.S. city with ris­ing crime.

“We’ve seen some pretty high-pro­file in­ci­dents that have oc­curred that are very vi­o­lent in na­ture,” Cha­con said. “Ob­vi­ously, we are go­ing to put in­ves­tiga­tive re­sources and proac­tive mea­sures in place to make sure that we are not see­ing a trend.”

Cha­con said Austin po­lice had al­ready be­gun im­ple­ment­ing such ef­forts to stymie vi­o­lent crime to­ward the end of 2016, which was the first year in roughly a decade that Austin’s vi­o­lent crime num­bers went up.

For in­stance, he said each of the city’s pa­trol di­vi­sions have been con­duct­ing spe­cial ini­tia­tives to find crime hot spots and “dis­rupt them through of­fi­cer pres­ence and quick re­sponse.”

They’ve also been ad­just­ing staffing lev­els to time of­fi­cer pres­ence with pre­dicted out­breaks, and have in­creased the number of foot and bike pa­trols in some parts of the city. Of­fi­cers also have done more ed­u­ca­tion ef­forts in ar­eas where crime has in­creased, in­clud­ing some apart­ment com­plexes, to high­light the need for aware­ness among res­i­dents go­ing to and from their homes at night or the need for ad­di­tional light­ing.

“We don’t think things are out of con­trol by any means, but we are con­stantly tak­ing note of where we are to make sure we don’t get to that out-of-con­trol point,” he said.

Week of vi­o­lent en­coun­ters

But the past seven days in Austin high­light law en­force­ment’s need for ur­gency.

An hour after the at­tack on the lo­cal mu­si­cian, a man pulled out a box cut­ter dur­ing an ar­gu­ment in the 700 block of East Sev­enth Street and slashed an­other man’s arm be­fore cit­i­zens and po­lice broke up the melee.

Po­lice grabbed the sus­pected at­tacker, iden­ti­fied in court records as 27-yearold Luis Uvaldo Rodriguez, al­most im­me­di­ately.

On Sun­day evening, Jose Pe­dro Dominguez-Cam­pos was gunned down in front of his home on Bird Creek Drive in North Austin.

Po­lice is­sued an ar­rest war­rant for the sus­pect in the shoot­ing, 34-year-old Jose Medel Martinez-Lopez, but he hasn’t been found.

It was a bloody be­gin­ning to the week­end, but it didn’t stop there.

As Austin headed into the work­week, four peo­ple were shot dead through­out Travis County, and three were ar­rested after weapons were fired in sep­a­rate in­ci­dents across the city.

Ac­cord­ing to an ar­rest af­fi­davit, Sa­muel Sepeda, 44, fired three shots into an­other ve­hi­cle with a man and woman in­side on Santa Rita Street in East Austin on Mon­day evening.

Carl Cleve­land, 24, was part of a duo who Austin po­lice say fired sev­eral shots at a man be­fore steal­ing his car at Decker and Loy­ola lanes around 3 a.m. Wed­nes­day, ac­cord­ing to court records. Cleve­land led of­fi­cers on a car chase on In­ter­state 35 into Hays County that reached speeds of more than 120 mph be­fore he crashed in San Mar­cos and was ar­rested, po­lice said.

On Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, a man in his 20s was fa­tally shot in the 6400 block of Spring­dale Road near Manor Road, and later that night, two oth­ers were fa­tally shot in western Travis County near Lake­way at 7:40 p.m. A third per­son was in­jured in the shoot­ing but sur­vived.

Then, in the early hours of Thurs­day, po­lice ar­rested a man they sus­pected of fir­ing sev­eral shots in the 500 block of East Sev­enth Street around 2:30 a.m.

That evening, Travis County deputies were in­ves­ti­gat­ing an­other homi­cide in the 14000 block of Ther­mal Drive.

Cha­con said that, even with a con­tin­u­ing uptick in crime, Austin still ranks among the na­tion’s safest cities and that res­i­dents and vis­i­tors alike can and should feel safe here.

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

On Thurs­day evening, Travis County deputies in­ves­ti­gate a homi­cide in the 14000 block of Ther­mal Drive. The past week brought a wave of vi­o­lence to Cen­tral Texas that left six peo­ple dead, four fac­ing crim­i­nal charges and at least seven other sus­pects not yet iden­ti­fied or charged.

JAY JANNER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

In the early hours of Thurs­day, po­lice ar­rest a man they sus­pect of fir­ing sev­eral shots in the 500 block of East Sev­enth Street.

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