81 identified in massive APD undercover drug sting near the ARCH

Crowds outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (KXAN Photo)
Crowds outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin police arrested dozens of suspected drug dealers specifically targeting “vulnerable” users near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless during a multi-week operation called “Spero.” That word means “hope” in Latin.

Undercover officers from the Street Narcotics team bought narcotics from 81 suspects over eight days between June 20 and July 20. An affidavit for one of the cases said officers were responding to “complaints of rampant drug sales and an open air drug market” around the ARCH. In that instance, an undercover officer bought $10 worth of cocaine less than 1,000 feet from a school.

While warrants have been issued for 81 people, police say they’ve currently arrested 26 people. One of the suspects is a 16-year-old, while the rest are adults. The majority of the arrests were for crack cocaine, but one case involved heroin.

Austin police say many of the suspected drug dealers come from outside downtown and take advantage of the homeless population. None of the suspects actually used any of the services at the ARCH and didn’t go inside the facility. Instead, they sold drugs to people outside who appeared to be homeless, police say.

“Fifty-three percent of all suspects have addresses outside of downtown and come to the ARCH to sell drugs and go back home after they are finished,” a press release from the city stated. It also mentioned that one alleged dealer told an undercover officer that his girlfriend picks him up every night after he’s finished selling.

“Our goal is to simply remove the predators to keep them from doing what they do,” said Organized Crime Unit Commander Troy Officer during Thursday’s briefing.

In an effort to keep the suspects from returning to the downtown area, Cmdr. Officer says the warrants signed by the judge also include a Stay Away Order so the suspects aren’t “simply in the cycle of coming back downtown to do business as usual.” Some Stay Away Orders require suspects to stay 200 yards away from the ARCH and others 500 yards.

Cmdr. Officer recognizes that this sting won’t eradicate the drug problem around the ARCH. “As you move the sharks out, new sharks will move in,” says Officer.

Police also report many of the suspects arrested had prior convictions, including 110 convictions for selling drugs and 148 for possessing them.

This arrest announcement comes a little more than three weeks after APD began a 30-day pilot program of increased patrols around ARCH. That included having two officers stationed outside 24 hours a day.

People who live and receive services near the ARCH have already noticed a difference. Ahmad Ranson who spends time there daily, sometimes seeking out services, said that before he noticed plenty of drug dealers  and people loitering outside the ARCH.

“I’ve noticed [the police] pretty much stood on top of those individuals who was out here just for the purpose of buying an selling drugs, and basically cleaned it up,” Ranson said. “I look around, they’re no where to be found, where they are I don’t know but I don’t see too much of that happening no more.”

He calls himself “in between” he has been homeless before and believes he will become homeless again in the near future when the funding for his current housing runs out.

Ranson said the area around 7th and Neches feels safer with the increased police presence. In general, he says the area is a lot less cluttered and feels more welcoming.

“A lot of people who were sick with addiction, they’re coming clean now they have nothing to support their habits, so they’re becoming clean,” he said. “I’m seeing a lot of people break that chain of addiction, so whatever they’re doing, let them continue doing what they’re doing.”

It’s not clear what will happen when the pilot ends, Ann Howard, the executive director for the Ending Homelessness Coalition said she hopes APD continues their intensive work downtown.

“We didn’t go into this with additional resources to help people get housed, and that’s really what we need is not just to make sure that people access services but that those services end with housing for them, so we’re really trying to figure out that piece and make sure there’s funding to provide those housing pathways,”  Howard said.

The coalition is applying for funding from HUD as well as other nationally competed for grants to do this.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said Thursday that she has identified five million dollars worth of budget needs to address homelessness in Austin. Tovo presented those needs at a council budget discussion this afternoon, and she hopes as many as possible are included in the budget. They include funding things like permanent supportive housing and money to continue the work around the ARCH.

Tovo explained that in this 30-day trial period, the city is looking to gather more data on the needs of the homeless population and work toward finding them permanent housing.

“I think the effort has been extremely successful,” Tovo said of the pilot program.

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