Austin, Texas, police are urging the public to call 311 instead of 911 to report nonemergencies, authorities said.
Starting Friday, individuals in the city are asked to use 311 when reporting crimes that are either no longer in process, when the suspect is no longer on the scene, or when there is no immediate threat to life or property, according to the Austin Police Department.
"Please understand, if somebody is in danger, we’re still going to send a marked unit and a uniformed officer to go handle it," interim police chief Joseph Chacon explained Wednesday, according to KXAN-TV. "But for crimes that may have already happened and are now being reported, we are looking at alternative measures, and that’s what we’re working on now."
Chacon said the changes come amid recent staffing challenges, reimagining public safety task force recommendations, and its review of its patrol COVID-19 mitigation protocols, which started May 2020.
The department said it was trying to reduce coronavirus exposure risk for the public and sworn police officers, who will no longer be responding to those nonemergency calls, FOX 7 Austin reported.
"I feel like, in many areas, not just obviously in our sworn officers on the street, but with our property crime technicians in forensics and in our Austin 311 call center, we are experiencing staffing shortages, and, so, I think that I’m going to ask for a little bit of patience. Many times people do have to wait on hold when they’re calling 311 in order to make that report," the interim chief said.
"If an officer is not necessarily needed, in other words, this is a crime that obviously has already been committed, and we can still get a property crime technician there to take photos, to be able to gather the evidence and to provide a case number and a way to follow up to a victim of a crime, then that may be the most appropriate way, actually, to handle it so that I can free my officers up to keep answering the emergency calls for service where we have a violent crime and people that are actively engaged in criminal activity," he added.
Crimes that could be considered nonemergencies include theft, suspicious person or vehicle, verbal disputes, prostitution, animal services, and burglary of a residence, business, or vehicle, police said.
"Again, if any on that list are still in progress, and there is an immediate threat to public safety, then a call to 911 is appropriate, and we will dispatch an officer," Chacon noted.
Last month, a North Carolina man said his daughter was in Austin for a bachelorette party with friends when the home they were renting was burglarized, KXAN-TV reported.
"They proceeded to call the police and were referred to 311, who instructed them to start an online report. And no law enforcement official arrived at the location," Darin Short explained.
After not hearing back for weeks, he said they received a call Wednesday afternoon saying an officer should contact them within 48 hours, according to the station.
Reports gathered by 311, or online at ireportaustin.com, will still be given to investigators – and detectives will follow up on them when they are able to do so, Chacon said.
He added that the nonemergency response could be reevaluated if the department is able to fill empty officer positions.
"We’re going to be seeking input into that area from our community stakeholders, from City Council, from community members at large in the coming months to see how they want those police services delivered, and then we’ll be able to determine how many officers we really need," said Chacon.
If someone is unsure whether a specific call is an emergency, they should still call 911, the chief noted.