In an effort to create an open dialogue between law enforcement officials and the Austin community, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and the Austin Police Department held a “Building Bridges” town hall meeting on Saturday to discuss the department’s successes and challenges.
“We have to pay attention — this isn’t just a one-and-a-half hour forum, these things happen every day,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who opened the event and introduced the panelists. “These are the times of details, times we need to take care of little things before they turn into big things. I want to encourage folks to invest in this process and ask the tough questions.”
Hosted by APD Assistant Chief Frank Dixon and other representatives from APD and the sheriff’s office, the panel featured interim Police Chief Brian Manley, who addressed the department’s accomplishments in 2016 as well as its goals for the new year.
Manley highlighted APD’s participation in former President Barack Obama’s Police Data Initiative, a program that began in 2015 designed to increase transparency and community relations by requiring participating local law enforcement agencies to regularly release police data sets to the public. Different from crime data, these reports detail police actions like stops and searches, and use of force.
“We have stats that tell how we are doing at APD … but I want to not only know what’s going on here but also compare us to other cities and other communities,” Manley said. “If we find that there are better results … then now I know where to go to get a better idea of what we could be doing.”
Other departmental successes in 2016 included the West Campus/UT initiative, which sought to address problems with the transient population around campus, and the Restore Rundberg project, a community-driven initiative supported by a three-year grant meant to help make the neighborhood safer.
About 20 people attended the town hall meeting. Throughout the event, officers highlighted the need for community engagement.
“It’s real easy for us to come together when we’re having trouble in society, but when things are going great, we don’t come together like this,” Dixon said. “Look at the state of this country, the way we are treating each other coming off this political cycle. These are trying times. Austin is looking at us to be leaders in society as a whole.”
Manley discussed APD’s crime statistics from the past year, noting that Austin was ranked the fourth safest city in the U.S. by FBI Uniform Crime Reporting in 2015. Manley also mentioned APD’s 51 percent case clearance rate in violent crime, almost 20 percentage points higher than the national average.
Despite these improvements, Manley said the department’s main challenge for the coming year will be addressing violent crime in the Austin area, which increased 8 percent last year.
Other goals for the new year include boosting employee morale, seeking a DNA lab solution and improving community policing.
“We want to do community policing the way our community wants us to do it,” Manley said. “The community needs to know the officers who are patrolling their neighborhoods — let them see that we’re more than just a uniform and build relationships.”