City officials announce new safety measures for SXSW

It's like having a Super Bowl in town for 9 straight days. That's how city officials described the coming SXSW event Wednesday and why new security changes were announced.

Venues for SXSW are now being assembled. Construction teams can be seen downtown scrambling to get everything in place for Friday's opening day.

"It's awesome, it's awesome, all of these people out here working, and the town is just alive and buzzing," said Carol Ann Wisely with Marquee Event Group.

The event itself is big although the city has reduced the number of applications for temporary parking lot type venues. There are 147, down from 168 last year. It's one of the changes announced Wednesday, following a review by city officials, to manage the more than 200,000 people expected each day.

"It's not in reaction to any one event its planning for all the events, over all, in how we can improve the experience our residents and visitors," said Bill Manno the city of Austin Corporate Special Events Program Manager.

Plastic water filling security barricades may be among the most noticeable additions to SXSW. Safety walls will block off city blocks expected to attract large crowds. Red River, 6th Street West of I-35 and 5th East of the interstate are among those targeted for the barriers. Gaps to provide access for emergency vehicles will be plugged by police patrol cars.

"We are trying to balance the need for the safety of the area with the ability to move people through there if we need to during the event," said Gordon Derr with the Austin Transportation Department.

While city officials say a deadly incident outside a venue last year was not the main reason for all of the new safety changes, it was factor. Four people were killed and about 2 dozen injured when a car drove into a crowd that had gathered outside a music venue. Investigators say the driver, who was allegedly trying to get away from a police patrol went through street closure signs that had been set up.

Scott Hendler, who represents one of the crash victims in a civil lawsuit against SXSW, met with reporters Wednesday. He is not completely satisfied with the new safety measures announced by the city. Hendler is especially critical of the use of police patrol cars to fill gaps in safety barricades that will be put up.

"They can move when they're hit ... they have flammable liquids in them, they can explode. They have other things that could fly off them whether it's glass or a side-view mirror or a fender that could injure bystanders. So there are other better more common sense measures," said Hendler.

Chief Acevedo defended the use of patrol cars.

"The reason why were are using police vehicles is twofold. Number one: it increases the visibility and number two: it sends a very strong message that there is a police presence. It's a lot easier for people to identify if you're up to no good, a black and white marked police car than to see a police officer that might be surrounded by 20,000 people that may or may not see him," he explained.

Improving safety is not limited to adding barricades like this, there is going to be a lot more law enforcement downtown. City code regulation teams are already out in force and parking violators are being towed. Police Chief Acevedo says the additional officers assigned to downtown have special orders: bust up the gridlock by citing drivers who cause intersection gridlock and track down pedestrians who cross against the red.

"I want to say one thing on that, if you get a ticket, if you walk against the red, I don't one to hear that we are petty, I don't want to hear what's going on with the city, you've been warned, we are going to enforce the pedestrian laws," said Chief Acevedo.

Along with the extra cops, 32 TABC agents are also being brought in to town to patrol night clubs and bars. The new city safety plan also includes a ban on flying drones, unless certification is reviewed by APD.

The downtown area has been sliced up into a special 911 grid to help first responders get to scenes faster.

Special drunk driving and aggressive driving crackdowns are also planned during SXSW.