On a warm October evening, Austin’s Dobie Middle School opened its doors to welcome the second UT-Austin Community Engagement Center Front Porch Gathering—a community convening regarding law enforcement and community engagement. Dobie is located in the heart of the Rundberg neighborhood area, which has been the focus of the Restore Rundberg Revitalization grant supported by the Department of Justice to promote public safety, crime reduction, education, and community well-being. The Austin middle school offered the perfect place to engage community leaders and members of various civic organizations in critical and productive exploration. Prior to the evening’s small group discussions, Dr. Ryan Sutton, Director of the African American Male Research Initiative at UT, moderated a short informative session with guest speakers Officer Ray Kianes, a Senior Officer District Representative with the Austin Police Department, and Gay Thomas, Complaint Specialist with the Office of the Police Monitor.
The panelists set the tone of the evening by openly acknowledging tense public sentiments regarding law enforcement and police departments. Dr. Sutton characterized today’s environment as reminiscent of “Jim Crow days” of police brutality against communities of color, and welcomed the evening’s participants to engage in a “dialogue for change”. Based on their shared years of experience, Officer Kianes and Ms. Thomas laid out the current landscape for police training and accountability to communities.
Officer Kianes, who serves as the Senior Officer in the Rundberg area and has been integral to the walking-beat model of the Restore Rundberg grant efforts, explained the de-escalation trainings that police officers undergo and the department’s internal responses to incidents of police violence in Austin. He encouraged listeners to know their rights in interactions with police such as the ability to request a supervisor and language translator during arrests. Ms. Thomas shared more information regarding her role as a Complaint Specialist and her goal to aid folks in reaching a mutual understanding of the law enforcement process, asking that people “trust the system enough” to make it work for them. She shared that the Office of the Police Monitor can be a tool for community empowerment if people know how to access and utilize it to make community voices and concerns heard and documented. The panelists’ comments launched smaller break-out sessions for participants to continue the conversation over the next half hour.
Over the course of the evening, about 40 participants in small break out groups discussed critical questions regarding law enforcement transparency to the public and safety issues. The four smaller groups hit on similar themes about their concerns regarding law enforcement, community engagement, the juvenile justice system, and overarching issues of social inequality in Austin. Participants concluded the event by addressing their concerns and imagining opportunities for action. These included:
- More accessible means for the Austin public to be involved with law enforcement education and accountability.
- Advocacy for law enforcement to use enhanced de-escalation and mediation techniques in tough situations with community members.
- Greater and more widespread trust-building initiatives between the Austin Police Department and local communities, such as more frequent “National Night Out” events, walking-block patrols rather than night vehicle patrols, and positive youth interactions.
- Strengthened cultural proficiency trainings for law enforcement, especially for officers serving in cities and neighborhoods unlike the ones in which they grew up.
- Heightened attention to the structural issues that influence community members’ interactions with law enforcement such as
- gentrification and neighborhood displacement
- the troubling lack of mental health services, and
- the need for restorative and rehabilitative educational practices directed at youth that can serve as a way to mitigate criminal justice involvement.
- More transparency and accountability around the documentations and filing of complaints and APD’s progress on the Department of Justice’s recommendations.
Front Porch Gatherings are intended to create spaces for Austin residents to discuss issues of importance and identify steps that move us forward to address them. Participants from Tuesday, October 18th were encouraged to continue the conversation in their organizations and neighborhoods, become more involved with the Citizen’s Police Academy and Office of the Police Monitor, and to follow-up with UT-Austin if they think that connections with faculty and students can scaffold their efforts to build better law enforcement and community engagement opportunities.
The next Front Porch Gathering will be held on Tuesday, November 15, at Mt. Zion Church. Attendees will take up issues related to affordable housing access for residents re-entering mainstream society from the criminal justice system.