Commander Dwayne Betts, the man in charge of the 15th police district, acknowledged that tensions between his officers and residents were high at one point in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner incidents.
“It got so bad — and I can be honest — that occasionally the same person I [used to] wave to in the candy store, I almost didn’t know how to receive them; they’d look at me differently,” he said to a crowd of about a hundred gathered at Columbus Park, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd., after a Safe Summer Peace March that was organized by Westside Health Authority (WHA) youth leaders.
The June 10 event was attended by students from area schools, including Austin Community Academy High School. The event was the culmination of discussions held at the school around the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. While the event provided area young people to voice their fears and concerns over gun violence and police abuse, it also provided Betts the opportunity to build, and mend, some bridges between the police and residents.
“I often tell my officers during roll call that the people you see are not all bad,” Betts told the march’s participants. “We’re not going to allow anybody to mistreat anybody — not under my watch. It ain’t happening,” said Betts.
During the event, the police commander agreed to a quick interview with Austin Weekly News on a variety of topics.
How important is this event to your policing strategy?
This is the launch of many more outings, gatherings and messages from the police department, in partnership with the community and our businesses. We not only expect to have a great summer, we demand to have a safe summer. We are putting the message out. Stop the gang violence, put the guns down and if you have a gun and you’re arrested, we’re going to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.
Many people out here are fed up and tired that they can’t come out in their own community or stand in front of their houses. The only way we’re going to rid that evil is if we come out and occupy those same spaces [that are often occupied] by those that don’t want to abide by the law.
My commitment to my officers is to go after the gangs. We know who they are and where they are. We have sources of intelligence who tell us what the gangs have planned and if we stand together with the community and employ our resources, there’s no doubt that, in time, you’ll see safety return to some of these communities.
What advice do you give to residents who may want to do something about the violence, but may be afraid to come forward with information?
We have people right now who come to the community meetings and are involved with the violence. There are opportunities for people to follow court cases. When we have these subjects arrested for shootings [and other violations of the law], we need to really have a solidified community presence in some of these court cases where someone has been shot. The violence really disrupts the normal safety of our communities. We have to stay focused and get involved. There’s a 100 percent chance that it won’t get better if you do nothing, so doing something means that there’s a chance, a possibility. That’s what I’m about. If we stay together, we’ll see the wrong go away.
How would you address some residents’ concerns regarding police harassment and abuse of power?
I think it’s a matter of miscommunication. We all care about the community and at the end of the day, we want to have a positive interaction. We have to get involved with teaching our youth what to do when you’re stopped by the police. We need to let our officers know about the superintendent’s message of leadership and accountability. We have to make sure the public realizes we’re caring people and the best way to show that is through communication. We have to talk to the residents — start doing more walking and talking, start doing more meetings. The department is going in the right direction, we just have to be [more] inclusive of the community.