APD to start Homeless Outreach Team

Austin Police said homelessness is a problem you can't arrest away. The department is launching a new operation that addresses "why" each individual is living on the street.

Some officers have patrolled the streets of Downtown Austin for so long they know just about every homeless person by name.

How they are interacting with them is much different than in years past. Dealings with the homeless revolved around sit and lie ordinance violations.

"We were arresting as many people as we could, taking them to jail. The offenses are class C misdemeanors, so they're fine only,” said Cochran. “So they get cut out, issued a warrant. We have people with 40, 60 warrants out here. That just makes it harder. Now you're trying to house people with warrants for their arrest. It spirals completely out of control."

Commander Pat Cochran says officers can't arrest homelessness away.

"If they can't sit here where are they going to sit? If they can't lay here where are they going to lay? We don't want to arrest people for being poor,” said.

A year ago, he got the idea from Houston PD to create a homeless outreach team. After months of research, Cochran assembled officers, paramedics and mental health professionals from Austin-Travis County Integral Care.

This June team members will begin walking the streets of the entertainment district and west campus. They will talk with the homeless to get to the bottom of why they are in such a situation. Then they will take necessary action.

In addition to the outreach program, police are carrying out felony sting operations targeting the criminal transient population.

"We've done theft from person. We've done drug busts out here. Drug buy walks and all kinds of other efforts... robbery issues,” said Cochran.

Cochran says those arrested have a lengthy violent criminal history.

"We're getting those people off for a long time. They're gone for at least several months at a time,” said Cochran.

Depending on the success of the program, the department may choose to implement the efforts citywide.

"I think the most important thing is to offer human interaction because that can do wonders,” said David Gomez of Austin-Travis County Integral Care. “You begin that way bringing in some trust faith that things can change because the hardest thing to do is to re-instill hope."

Cochran says drug sting operations out here have averaged 22 and 25 arrests with felony charges. Officers have carried out three thus far.

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