Scores of state highway troopers, usually found on roadways across Texas in their distinctive cowboy hats and black-and-white patrol vehicles, have descended on Austin, the state capital.
At first, they were welcomed by the city’s Democratic leaders, part of a plan to address violent crime and make up for a shortage of more than 300 officers in the Austin Police Department.
But in a booming city known for its progressive politics, the partnership between the local police, steeped in the language of reform, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, under the direction of Republican state leaders, soon began to raise concern.
Statistics emerged showing that those arrested on misdemeanor charges by state troopers were mostly Black and Hispanic. In May, there was a fatal shooting by troopers after a chase. In July, another trooper shot at a fleeing, unarmed man, wounding him. Days later, two troopers drew their weapons on a father and son during a car stop.
After that stop, Austin’s mayor suspended the partnership with the state police. But instead of the troopers leaving, they were joined by dozens more when Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, ordered a fresh deployment.
Now Austin has entered an uncertain and uneasy new period in which two separate law enforcement agencies, with differing approaches to policing, are patrolling the streets without formal coordination. One answers to city leaders. The other to Mr. Abbott.
“If you stop people for traffic violations, there’s a high probability, if criminals operate in that area, that you’re going to encounter those criminals,” said Maj. Gabriel Ortiz, who has been supervising the deployment of troopers in Austin.Credit…Jordan Vonderhaar for The New York Times
“We are feeling overpoliced — that’s the feedback that got back to me ultimately as the chief,” Joseph Chacon, chief of the Austin Police Department, said of the comments he has heard from the public.
The presence of so many state troopers has rekindled longstanding debates over policing and crime, particularly over the aggressive use of car stops for minor infractions as a way to prevent violence.
The deployment has also raised political concerns, with some Democrats suggesting that the influx of troopers was part of a push by Republican leaders in the State Capitol to exert greater control over growing, Democrat-led cities. The Republican-dominated Legislature passed laws this year limiting the discretion of elected local prosecutors and barring cities from enacting local ordinances on a range of issues.
Police officer shortages have been a nationwide problem, challenging major cities including New York and Los Angeles. In Houston, a leading Democratic candidate for mayor has said that if elected, he would welcome 200 state troopers into the city to assist its Police Department with combating violent crime.
On a recent Tuesday evening, state troopers could be found throughout Austin, pulling over drivers for traffic infractions or expired registrations, requesting permission to make searches, finding small amounts of drugs like Xanax, methamphetamine and marijuana.
Along North Lamar Boulevard in northeast Austin, red and blue lights flashed silently in the night, visible from a distance in the low-rise neighborhood, indicating another car stop by state troopers.
“If you stop people for traffic violations, there’s a high probability, if criminals operate in that area, that you’re going to encounter those criminals,” said Maj. Gabriel Ortiz, who has been supervising the deployment of troopers in Austin. “Let’s face it, they don’t abide by criminal laws, so they’re certainly not going to follow traffic laws.”
When the troopers arrived in late March, statistics were