During the first 29th Ward community meeting of the New Year, held Jan. 4 at Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd., 15th District Police Commander Dwayne Betts summarized for residents some ways he plans on fighting crime in 2017.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said that he was prompted to invite the commander to the meeting, because his constituents had been calling his office with questions about crime that the alderman wasn’t sure how to answer.

Betts said that, while the past year has been discouraging, he believes that there are strategies that can turn things around — even if that progress may seem slow.

Betts first urged meeting attendees to help recruit eligible people from the community to become police officers. The commander said that the force would benefit if more officers were black and lived in Austin.

“I want to deputize everyone to recruit additional people to become police officers,” Betts said. “You got that nephew who doesn’t know what he wants to do? You got that neighbor looking for work? We removed the barriers. It’s free to apply. At the end of 18 months, that person who’s been living with you without paying is going to be earning $72,000.”

The commander said he understood why people would be apprehensive about joining the police force, but he argued that becoming an office would give people a chance to be part of something that would change CPD for the better.

Betts used the Penn State sexual abuse scandal as an example of an institution whose reputation had been damaged, but that was slowly reforming its image.

“Athletes go there because it’s great to be part of a turnaround story,” Betts said.

The commander added that, as part of an effort to improve community-police relations, the department has allocated resources to increase CAPS [XXX] staffing. Betts said he hopes that, over the next few months, CAPS officers and community members will work together to develop programs for local youth.

“I want to see more youth programs developed, because this is the time we want youth programs developed — when it’s cold,” he said.

The commander also touted the Strategic Anti-Violence Missions, a program that allocates more resources to areas where officials believe there is high potential for increased violence. Those additional resources included not just more patrolmen and investigators, but also more infrastructure improvements.

“It was very successful,” Betts said. “Guns were removed from the street, violent offenders were removed from the street. At the same time, [there were] wraparound efforts as the city improved lighting significantly, and replaced signs that had fallen down or were damaged.”

Taliaferro said that, in the areas where the program was implemented, some of the crime moved away from the intersections. The alderman said that he was concerned what, while violence decreased in some areas, it flared up in others.

“A lot of the time, the situation can feel like a whack-a-mole,” Betts conceded, adding that the program is designed to move more resources into locations where violence flares up.

Betts explained that flare-ups in violence tend to stem from a handful of factors, including retaliation, conflicts over drug selling territory, and released convicts re-igniting old conflicts in the neighborhoods they return to after prison.

The commander also said that he’s been working with local businesses, urging them to put up security cameras, improve lighting and generally make the area around them safer. He has also been working with apartment building owners.

“I do monthly meetings for businesses,” Betts said. “I do monthly meetings for gas stations and property owners that are complicit in illegal activity going on outside their property. And we send a message that we’re not going to tolerate that.”

To engage local youth, his officers have been going to local schools to conduct assemblies where they talk with students. The officers meet with young men and young women separately so that the assemblies go smoother and the conversations are more productive, Betts said.

The commander also said that he got a commitments for a local church that he didn’t name to do a job fair, which would also help connect local residents to resources, such as record expungement and drug abuse treatment.

In the end, Betts said, the most important thing was to keep working toward reducing crime and violence, no matter how long it takes.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” he reflected. “It might seem like Utopia, but we got to dream of something.”