Austin sees hundreds of sex offender cases removed from police officer supervision due to defunding

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Hundreds of convicted sex offenders are no longer being monitored by sworn police officers in Austin, Texas due to the city’s move to defund the police and cut police academy classes. 

As of 2019, there were about 1,600 registered sex offenders in Austin according to the state’s sex offender database. There is no law preventing any of them from living near schools or other places where children tend to congregate, according to a local news report. About 650 of those cases were handled by officers who checked in on the registered sex offenders weekly to ensure they were where they reported themselves to be. But three of those officers were sent back to patrol as a result of the decision to defund the police, including slashing three cadet classes at the police academy, in August 2020. Defunding the police forced the department to cut the Sex Offender Apprehension and Registration Unit (SOAR).

Those cases once handled by sworn police officers are now being monitored by civilian employees, including two who only work part-time. The civilian monitors lack arrest authority and some question whether they are able to keep up with the increased caseload.

Interim police Chief Joseph Chacon speak about the changes during a news conference Wednesday (Austin Police Department)

An Austin Police Department spokesperson confirmed to Fox News that three police officers who were tasked with monitoring sex offenders were assigned to patrol due to budget cuts and that civilians were assigned those cases. 

“The lack of cadet classes at APD over the last couple of years has contributed to an officer staffing shortage,” APD told Fox News. “In order to prioritize the Department’s ability to respond to 911 phone calls and keep the community safe, APD has had to reallocate some personnel from our support units back to patrol. The Sex Offender Apprehension and Registration Unit (SOAR) is one of the units affected by these staffing challenges and lost 3 officers who were re-assigned to patrol in the process.  These officers’ duties and tasks while assigned to SOAR were to perform sex offender compliance checks, and to track down and arrest those with outstanding warrants. With the absence of these officers in the SOAR unit to assist with these tasks, the unit has limited capacity to perform these functions. There are currently 1 sergeant, 3 detectives, 1 full time civilian, and 2 part time civilians who now work in this unit.”

Austin Texas downtown cityscape skyline aerial view

Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar, both Democrats, championed the vote to slash the police department’s funding in August 2020. Casar is now running for Congress. 

A current member of the Austin City Council told Fox News that the civilian employees are not able to monitor and apprehend sex offenders the same way that police officers are.

“I spoke recently with two women who are contractors that oversee putting ankle monitors on violent offenders,” Austin City Councilwoman Mackenzie Kelly told Fox News. “It surprised me to learn that these violent offenders often remove the monitors and dump them in trash bins. There are no officers going out to check on the whereabouts of these violent offenders and it appalls me. At a very minimum the city is responsible for public safety and we are doing an injustice to victims of violent crimes by not staffing this unit.”

Kelly won her seat on the city council in the wake of the vote to defund APD.

One Austin police officer, 13-year veteran Justin Berry, tells Fox News that the staffing shortage has had dire consequences and is potentially responsible for a recent high profile incident where a sex offender with an active warrant for his arrest for failing to register with authorities allegedly raped an autistic teenager.

“They took those officers back and those officers were tasked with field visits, sex offender compliance checks, things that could have prevented things like this from happening,” Berry explained. 

A source told Fox News that the sex offender accused of raping the teenager, Ronald Christopher Martin, was one of the cases that was being handled by an officer who was reassigned to patrol due to the city council’s vote to cut the police department’s funding in August 2020.

The Austin Police Department told Fox News that it did not have a “specific estimate” of the number of cases handed over to civilians at this time, but a source tells Fox that it’s about 650 cases.

“The defunding of the Austin Police Department has had a devastating impact on the lives of the citizens. Just like the murder rate, the failure of the police department to continue to be able to investigate, track and arrest sexual predators has created an unsafe environment. This is the bitter reality of the Adler/Casar police reimagined movement,” said Charley Wilkison, Executive Director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.

Following the city’s decision to defund the police, Austin experienced a record-breaking 89 homicides in 2021, shattering the previous mark of 59.

In addition to the grim milestone, a record-breaking surge in officers leaving the force stemming from the police defending and low morale has caused massive staffing shortages that has left citizens to fend for themselves.

Fox News’ Bryan Preston contributed to this report.

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