Gary Griffin

Police officers monitoring the West Campus area now have an extra set of eyes on them in an effort to expose enforcement officials who violate the law on the job.

Members of the Peaceful Streets Project, an Austin-based civil and legal rights advocacy organization, expanded their efforts into West Campus Thursday night with their first area “cop watch.” During these watches, organization members monitor law enforcement officials by filming them in action, often at traffic stops. The organizatiom will be monitoring the West Campus area on a bi-weekly basis.

The Peaceful Streets Project also accepts complaints from those who feel they have been victimized by the police and post those complaints online. They hold informational sessions to better educate the public of their legal rights as well. Antonio Buehler, Peaceful Streets Project founder, said the organization chose to expand its efforts into West Campus because Austin Police Department officer Gary Griffin was appointed district representative for the West Campus area this summer, meaning he oversees police initiatives there. Griffin was fired from the Austin Police Department in 2007 for beating up a mentally ill homeless man at a bus stop earlier that year. He was later rehired after an investigation into the beating.

Before the first West Campus cop watch, the organization held a training session in conjunction with Libertarian Longhorns to explain legal rights people should be aware of when dealing with police.

Buehler was arrested three times this year while filming police and charged with spitting on an officer in the first case and interfering with public duty after that. He has denied the allegations against him and has not yet stood trial on the charges. Buehler said all arrests were made out of retaliation and claims multiple witnesses and video recordings support his stance.

Current APD policy allows members of the general public to film police in any public place unless such recording interferes with police activity.

At the informational session, New York licensed attorney Kaja Tretjak said a person’s rights differ depending on what type of interaction they are having with a law enforcement official. She said there are three ways to classify an interaction: conversation, detention and arrest. For example, at the detention stage, a person is not under arrest but is not free to leave.

Tretjak also explained the best way to handle a police encounter at a house party.

“Try to avoid having the cops called in the first place,” Tretjak said. “Keep people on the property, try to be private and keep the noise level to a minimum.”

Jose Nino, president of Libertarian Longhorns, said his organization felt it was important to host the event for several reasons.

“It is a great educational opportunity for UT students to learn about the rights they have and how to flex them ...” he said. “It’s all about empowerment and letting people know that they have the power to do things to create a safer community around them.”

Printed on Monday, October 29, 2012 as: Project watches police in West Campus area

After evaluating the property crime situation in West Campus, Student Government is working to remind students to be more aware of the threat of theft.

Carson Jones, University Area Partners’ external appointee, said SG will be using social media to remind students to lock their car and home doors and keep their valuables out of plain sight.

University Area Partners is a partnership between the city of Austin, UT and University-area businesses that focuses on neighborhood planning and crime prevention. Jones said there are simple steps people can take that can go a long way to preventing property crime. 

“People become too trusting, and they forget that we are living in the heart of the city and others have an incentive to steal your belongings,” Jones said.

Gary Griffin, Austin Police Department district representative for the West Campus area, said he does not think students are careful enough in the area because they are not used to a bigger city or think West Campus is safe since it is close to UT. 

“They think it is part of UT, and it’s all wholesome and good, and nobody is supposed to mess with their stuff because they go to UT,” Griffin said. “But it doesn’t happen that way.” 

According to APD statistics, the 78705 zip code, which encompasses the areas west, northwest and north of campus, has a similar rate of property crime when compared to other parts of the city and Austin overall.

In 2011, 78705 had four incidents of property crime for every 100 people, and the city of Austin had five incidents for every 100 people.

Jones said he has seen a carefree attitude in regard to keeping apartment codes secure.  

“The problem is apartment codes are handed out a little too much,” Jones said. “You need to be wary about who you’re handing out apartment codes to.”

Accounting junior Rebecca Harrison said her home and car were broken into last fall when she left the door to her home unlocked because she was expecting one of her roommates to come home later. While she was asleep, she said someone broke into the house and stole her roommate’s laptop, camera and iPod. The burglar then used Harrison’s car keys to steal her GPS and iPod from her car.

“It was mostly our fault because we left our door unlocked,” Harrison said. “Now we always lock our door, no matter who is home or who is not. We have a sign on our door to remind us.”

When people forget to lock their doors, Jones and Griffin said thefts similar to Harrison’s are common.

“In general, people forget things like this can happen,” Jones said. “What people fail to realize is there are some people with bad intentions.”

Printed on Friday, October 19, 2012 as: SG warns students of property crimes

When 23-year-old transient Waylon Barnes asked another homeless man on the drag to be nicer to a group of pedestrians, he said he never could have imagined he would get stabbed.

The man stabbed Barnes in the back with a steak knife earlier this month and is in jail. Even though Barnes has recovered, he said the transient crime problem in West Campus is far from over, as this incident is just one example of the transient violence that has plagued the area for years. Although police have recently increased their presence in the area and violence has decreased, Barnes and a group of area business owners have taken a stand, advocating for a new policy that would decrease transient violence in the area even more and make it a more permanent change.

Submitted to Austin City Council Aug. 23, the proposal is titled APD Good Behavior Maintenance Policy of the Vagrant Population. It calls for a mandated seven-day-a-week police bicycle patrol dedicated to the area that would run during the day in addition to APD’s current evening and night patrols. The City Council has not taken any action on it.
Austin Police Department crime statistics show a 57.14 percent drop in violent crime for the Central West area, which includes West Campus, this past August compared to August of last year. The statistic includes a decrease from seven to three violent crime incidents.

Barnes said he was standing near the Church of Scientology at West 22nd and Guadalupe streets Sept. 3 when he noticed a homeless man harassing a group of people walking by. In previous reports, APD said the incident occurred in front of the University Co-op.

“He was talking about beating them up and robbing them,” Barnes said. “He was even talking in a fake Asian accent to make fun of them.”

Barnes said he simply could not bear to watch and decided to give the man some advice.

“I just went up to him and was like, ‘That’s not the way we are going to make any money, by you disrespecting them,’” Barnes said. “So I was like, ‘OK, whatever, I said my piece,’ and I turned around to walk away, and by the time I even got into the middle of the street, I felt it. Wham.”

Jennie Bennett, who is part of the group of business owners supporting the proposal, has owned a jewelry stand in the 23rd Street Renaissance Market since 1996. The market is at the intersection of West 23rd and Guadalupe streets next to the University Co-op.

Bennett and other artisans began advocating two years ago to have an increased police presence put in place around the Renaissance Market and its surrounding West Campus area. With the appointment of APD Officer Gary Griffin as District 1 Representative, which includes West Campus, earlier this summer, Bennett said she has seen their concerns taken seriously for the first time.

Griffin was once fired from the force and sued for beating up a mentally ill man at a bus stop.

In June APD Sgt. Alfred Trejo said Griffin tripled the police presence in the area, which he called a much-needed improvement.

Still, Bennett said the fight to clean up area crime is not over because more officers are still needed and a measure needs to be put in place to make the increased police presence more permanent.

Trejo said Bennett’s requests are legitimate, but the issue with meeting them for APD is a lack of available resources.

“We are kind of operating on a lean budget,” he said. “They want a permanent presence on the Drag there, with a separate set of bike officers, but we just don’t have the people to do it.”

Bennett said she understands APD’s position, which is why she has taken her plea to the Austin City Council, the organization that sets the budget for the city.

“It was time to take it to the next step,” she said.