Community leaders host event to discuss law enforcement, community relationship

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Dr. Ryan Sutton asks officer Rafael Kianes and Gay Thomas about their personal history with APD and the people of Austin.
Photo Credit: Brooke Crim | Daily Texan Staff

Monica Guzmán grew up thinking if she needed help she could go to anyone in uniform. Now, she said, that’s not the case. 

In an effort to collaborate with Austin communities, UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement created the Front Porch Gathering series, which on Tuesday night addressed issues surrounding law enforcement and community engagement.

“I’m not in favor of abolishing the police department, but I’m also not happy with the way things are now,” said Guzmán, a co-chair of the Restore Rundberg Revitalization Team, a neighborhood revitalization project. “It needs to change.”

Students, community leaders and a police officer came together to generate ideas and solutions. Rafael Kianes, an APD community police officer, said the department has taken steps to come up with innovative solutions to long-term problems.

“When we have complicated problems, we’re going to need complicated solutions,” Kianes said. “There’s not just one thing you can do that can just fix everything. We talk about community, we talk about policing. This isn’t just one thing, there isn’t just one community.”

Gay Thomas, a complaint specialist at the Austin Police Monitor’s Office, said she deals with complaints about officers from citizens and tries to have both parties come to a mutual understanding.

“Other than one person, the rest have come out and the officer had a clearer understanding of what the people were going through and the people had a clearer understanding of why the officer may have done what they did,” Thomas said. “Crow is a tough bird to eat, but they will come through and they’ll sit down and they’ll have a mutual understanding when they walk out.”

Ryan Sutton, a postdoctoral fellow at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, moderated the discussion and said education is a critical component to confront these issues.

“It sounds as though there’s a key educational piece there to empower [citizens] to come forward,” Sutton said. “Education is a big key.”

Carl Webb, founder of the North Lamar neighborhood association, attended the event and said he wishes there was more community representation.

“To have an open and honest dialogue, you invite as many voices that are active in the community as you can,” Webb said. “I’m shocked, surprised that a representative of Black Lives Matter wasn’t here.”

Virginia Cumberbatch, director of UT’s Community Engagement Center, said she reached out and spoke to the president of the local chapter of BLM, but they were not able to attend.

Moving away from the panel format of last year’s Community Engagement Dialogues, the series features a discussion followed by small groups of community members brainstorming and presenting actions to tackle these issues.

Cumberbatch said the purpose of this event is really to provide time and space for community members to come together to discuss issues among themselves. 

“Our hope is that it’s more than conversation and dialogue, but what people really get out of it is an opportunity for collaboration and partnership and action steps,” Cumberbatch said.