AUSTIN, Texas - Efforts to launch the City of Austin’s Office of Violence Prevention are moving forward.
The city announced Thursday that Michelle Myles will serve as the program manager, effective immediately. Previously, she served in the Austin Public Health Homeless Services Division. While in her new role, Myles will work under the direction of Interim Austin Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup.
"Creating multiple solutions to public safety is crucial to creating a healthy community that feels valued, respected, and seen," said Myles in a statement provided to FOX 7. "The Office of Violence Prevention seeks to apply a public health approach utilizing an equity lens to develop interventions that prevent violence and support our community."
The Office of Violence Prevention is being launched as overall gun violence in Austin has steadily increased since 2015. As of May 2021, there have been 33 homicides in Austin, also an increase from the year before.
Councilmember Alison Alter spearheaded the city’s Task Force on Gun Violence in 2019 which came up with the idea for this program in hopes of more efficiently addressing gun violence in the community.
"If you take a public health approach you ask different questions and you come to different solutions," said Councilmember Alter. "What that means is we’re treating gun violence as a disease."
Councilmember Alter said it will start with collecting data and observing trends that are specific to Austin and then working to address those trends. They’ll also work closely with a network of violence prevention offices in other cities.
One of their first projects will be raising public awareness for gun storage safety. "The public health lens is different than a public safety lens," she said. "You try and get to the root cause and really try to understand how you can affect behaviors to change the outcomes."
Local attorney Shelli Egger works with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and was also a part of the original Task Force on Gun Violence. "Why are we waiting until the trigger gets pulled to address the problem when we can go upstream and try and prevent it from happening in the first place?" she said.
She referred to current law enforcement methods as "strategies that use essentially handcuffs and cages to solve gun violence."
"Enforcing gun law is always an important part of the overall puzzle but it’s not the be-all, end-all," she said. "A lot of what we characterize as gun crime is really about unmet needs in our community, and if we were meeting those needs in other ways people are not going to have to turn to use a gun to solve that problem."
The creation of this office comes as the Austin Police Department is experiencing a staffing shortage. In August of 2020, the city council voted to cut roughly $150 million from the police budget. Some of those funds are being put toward the Office of Violence Prevention.
In the near future, Governor Abbott is also expected to sign into law a bill that would remove the requirement for Texas residents to get a license in order to carry handguns, except for those prohibited by state or federal law.