Sobriety center gets OK from Travis County commissioners

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Police in Austin could soon change the way they deal with drunk people in public. Travis County Commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday to work with Austin officials to develop a sobriety center…or a ‘drunk tank’ as it is sometimes called.

Rather than going to jail or to the hospital, police would take intoxicated people there.

“We would rather not have our officers spending their time on a public intoxication when no crime has been committed,” said Anthony Marquardt, with the Austin-Travis County EMS Association.

Travis County officials say police can spend up to two or three hours processing someone through the jail system, keeping them away from their patrol. Last year 3,700 people were arrested for public intoxication by Austin Police. In that same year, University of Texas Police arrested 169 people.

A quick drop-off at a sobriety center would allow the officer return back to patrol more promptly.  The system could also free up courts overwhelmed with processing the cases. And, it would relieve emergency rooms.

“On a given Friday or Saturday night, we may see up to a third of our capacity in the Brackenridge ED (emergency department) that’s being occupied by people just waiting to be sober,” said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, the director of the emergency department at University Medical Center Brackenridge.

A sobriety center would be staffed with police and medical personnel in case a situation turns more serious.

“We don’t have to invent the wheel,” Ziebell said. “There are very, very successful sobering center programs in San Antonio, in Houston, and Dallas.”

With Austin’s growing entertainment district, in a growing city, officials say the need for this kind of establishments growing too.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity, and a much needed one,” said Marquardt. “Austin is the only metropolitan city of its size that does not have a sobriety center, or any version of it.”

The visitors to the sobriety center wouldn’t pay a fee or fine. Tax dollars keep it running. But supporters say with the money saved in jails and courts, the center would ultimately pay for itself.

Travis County officials don’t have a specific location picked out for a potential sobriety center.

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