Texas state troopers are routinely stopping motorists of color in Austin, data shows

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers make a traffic stop in Southeast Austin on Aug. 7. (Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune, Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

As the sun sets over Riverside Drive in Southeast Austin, a cluster of state troopers hits the streets — at one point, five Department of Public Safety SUVs sit at an intersection. They make one traffic stop after another, the gold Texas-shaped emblems on their doors reflecting their red and blue emergency lights.

Paul Ramos, 56, volunteers at Tacos La Sabroza, a food truck next to a Shell station at the corner of East Riverside Drive and Montopolis Drive, in exchange for food. Night after night, Ramos says he sees state troopers pulling people over.

“What I see is they pull over Hispanics but they don’t just pull them over, they tell them to get out, they take pictures of their tattoos or they start from bottom to top searching their cars,” Ramos said. “It pisses me off.”

On a Tuesday night in August, nine traffic stops made by state troopers were observed by The Texas Tribune in the Montopolis neighborhood. Only once was the driver not a person of color.

In March, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson and Gov. Greg Abbott made a deal to send state troopers to assist Austin’s understaffed police department.

But four months later, on July 12, Watson announced that the city was suspending the partnership after reports that state troopers pulled a gun on a 10-year-old during a traffic stop. DPS video of the stop later showed that the troopers didn’t point their guns at the child but did point them at his father.

DPS troopers make a traffic stop in southeast Austin on Aug. 7, 2023.

The Austin City Council member representing Southeast Austin said DPS troopers have made neighborhoods feel like police checkpoints. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

Abbott responded by sending an additional 30 troopers to Austin, bringing the total to 130.

Records obtained by the Tribune through an open records request show that DPS has made 1,253 arrests in Travis County between March and July, including 513 in April alone. That includes a seven-week period between mid-May and early July when the state pulled most of the troopers out of Austin and sent them to the Texas-Mexico border.

In 2022, state troopers made 935 arrests in Travis County during the entire year.

Data from the Travis County attorney’s office shows that from March 27, when the city announced that troopers would begin patrolling Austin’s streets, to July 12, 82% of the people charged with misdemeanors by state troopers were Black or Latino.

During that same period, 69% of misdemeanor charges filed by Austin police were against Black people or Latinos, who together make up 41% of the city’s population.

“It’s very oppressive, it’s exploitative, it’s just total harassment. This is outright racial profiling,” said Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis neighborhood association and a local activist. “We can’t go out in the community, can’t even go to the grocery store, without feeling intimidated or fearful that we’ll be pulled over by DPS. People are very afraid to come out.”

City Council member Vanessa Fuentes, who represents Southeast Austin, said she's heard the same thing from her constituents.

“The community saw an influx of troopers, and these are neighborhoods that are predominantly Latino, they are communities of color,” she said. “I heard directly from constituents who felt that going down Riverside was like going through a checkpoint because they were pulling people over almost every single light.”

DPS troopers patrol at the corner of Montopolis Dr. and E. Riverside Dr. in southeast Austin on Aug. 7, 2023.

DPS troopers patrol at the corner of Montopolis Drive and East Riverside Drive in Southeast Austin on Aug. 7. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

DPS officials declined requests for comment.

Travis County data also shows that state troopers have filed more than 200 marijuana-related charges this year in the county. Minor marijuana possession has been decriminalized in Austin for more than a year, and police stopped issuing citations or making arrests for possessing small quantities of marijuana three years ago.

Data from the county attorney’s office shows that during the partnership, 99% of citations and arrests made for possession of marijuana under 2 ounces — the amount decriminalized in Austin — have come from DPS troopers.

In an email to the Travis County attorney’s office, Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu said that almost all of those cases are subject to “automatic rejection or dismissal by the county attorney” because the city decriminalized minor marijuana offenses.

Travis County Attorney Delia Garza said another barrier to prosecuting marijuana cases is that crime labs can’t easily test suspected marijuana because legal substances like hemp and Delta-8 contain the same active ingredient.

Almanza said that she and local NAACP leaders attempted to schedule multiple meetings with Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon to discuss their concerns about over-policing, but the chief postponed or canceled all of them.

Chacon said he remembers having to reschedule one meeting with Almanza but said she didn’t follow up.

DPS troopers make a traffic stop in southeast Austin on Aug. 7, 2023.

After Austin Mayor Kirk Watson announced the city was ending its partnership with DPS, Gov. Greg Abbott sent 30 more state troopers to the city. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

“I can’t really speak to why DPS is arresting the people that they are. That’s a question for DPS,” Chacon said, adding that he’d like to restore the partnership with DPS, but “I want to make sure we get it right” with input from the community.

Austin council member Mackenzie Kelly, who represents Northwest Austin, said she visited Southeast Austin and spoke to residents a couple weeks after the city ended its partnership with DPS.

“They appreciated having DPS troopers roll through their neighborhood,” Kelly said. “Because, for them, it deterred crime. They could see a difference. There weren’t as many gunshots in the middle of the night. They didn’t see as many open-air drug deals in their community.”

Kelly said she worries about the lack of coordination between state troopers and Austin police since the mayor ended the formal partnership.

Chacon said he didn’t have any input into the decision to suspend the partnership, adding that he and DPS’ regional director talked every day while it was active.

“We’d talk about where we’re seeing crime patterns and trends and how DPS was going to be deploying to address those [patterns],” Chacon said. “We don’t do that anymore.”

The Tribune filed open records requests with Austin police and the city requesting the written agreement between DPS and Austin police, as well as 911 call logs detailing any emergency calls that state troopers responded to.

APD and the city said there were “no responsive documents” for either request.

DPS troopers make a traffic stop in southeast Austin on Aug. 7, 2023.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety continues to patrol Austin. We will not allow our capital city — or any city in Texas — to be overrun by crime,” Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted in defense of the deployment of DPS troopers to Austin. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

“We know that DPS wasn’t responding to our 911 calls, they weren’t being dispatched to our 911 calls, they were on the same radio frequency and they chose when to show up and what to take on,” said Fuentes, the City Council member representing Southeast Austin.

Crime rates have been on the decline in Austin, and monthly reports from Austin police show the trend began prior to the partnership between the city and DPS.

“Under Greg Abbott’s direction, the Texas DPS has spent the vast majority of their resources pulling Austinites over for minor issues like expired registrations and arresting people for small amounts of pot — instead of helping to solve real crimes," U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, said in a written statement. “We’ve brought down the homicide rate and the crime rate, making Austin one of the safest big cities in America — but no thanks to Abbott. It’s time for Greg Abbott to stop messing with Austin.”

Abbott tweeted Sunday defending his decision to increase the DPS presence in Austin.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety continues to patrol Austin. We will not allow our capital city — or any city in Texas — to be overrun by crime,” Abbott wrote. ”DPS will step in wherever needed to keep Texans safe.”

DPS troopers make a traffic stop in southeast Austin on Aug. 7, 2023.

DPS presence has been heavy in the Montopolis neighborhood in Southeast Austin. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican who represents a large part of Austin, defended Abbott’s deployment of state troopers in Austin and said the state government should “turn Austin into a state zone, to take it over and make it safe.”

“Somebody’s got to focus on public safety in Austin, because it sure as hell isn’t the city council or the mayor’s office,” Roy said. “They’re being overwhelmed because of the stupidity of Austin leadership.”

Watson declined requests for comment.

Roy dismissed concerns about overpolicing in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, calling it “race-baiting.”

Back in Southeast Austin, Tejano music plays at a taco stand called Callejeros Riverside. Shortly before midnight, half a dozen DPS vehicles pass by the patio in a 15-minute span.

Geoff Bell, who’s lived in Montopolis for three years, said he’s irritated by the increased presence of state troopers in the neighborhood.

When asked if he felt safer because of the DPS presence, Bell said: “Absolutely not. It doesn’t seem like there’s any point. It’s just overpopulated with police.”

Olivia Alafriz and Chris Essig contributed to this story.

The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.