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APD Meets with Residents to Take On Issues of Racial Profiling, Community Interaction

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Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
/
KUT
An APD event discussing community interaction and policing at the ACC Riverside Campus on August 1, 2016.

In today’s politically charged environment, it’s not often you get together with a group of strangers and talk about racial profiling and prejudice. But this week the Austin Police Department is doing just that with a series of community discussions designed to improve interactions with police.

Raise your hand if you stereotype people based on their race.

Anyone? That question and the conversation that follows can be awkward. But the Austin Police Department thinks talking frankly about racial issues could improve community relations. APD’s recent I.C.A.R.E. Faith Community Conference gave civilians a taste of the training officers get on racial profiling. Retired APD Sergeant Felecia Williams-Dennis helped lead the discussion.

“There’s a lot of things going on in the community, and we want to try and do what we can to provide healing as well as education so that we can come together and build a better community,” she said.  

The APD has come under scrutiny after video surfaced of last year’s violent arrest of Breaion King, an African-American schoolteacher. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo has since apologized, and the incident is under investigation. But some people at the conference were more bothered by what happened after the arrest. Footage from inside the police car shows an officer telling King that police are afraid of black people because of  “violent tendencies.” Williams-Dennis said the department hasn’t figured out a way to erase years of racial bias some officers may hold when they enter the force, but the key is not to act on those feelings.

“Because you have to first recognize that you have a stereotype before you can take control of it, so to speak," Williams-Dennis said. "So...if I had a particular stereotype against women less than five feet, I have to recognize that I have that stereotype, so that I don’t now impose inappropriate action on you because of the way I feel or the way I think.”

Williams-Dennis says all incoming officers receive racial profiling training, and they’re required to do more every two years. But some people in the audience thought that wasn’t enough.

“I think conversations is a starting point,” said Austin resident Mechelle Smith. “When action takes place, and individuals get to see the action and the results that take place, I think that’s when we really start to move in a different direction.”

Smith, who’s African American, thinks officers should be held to a higher standard of not acting on impulse, but she accepts the idea that police may be hold racial biases.

“But we still have to realize that they’re human, right…and they have experiences, and so forth. It’s how do we help them to control those experiences and help dilute it and diffuse the situation. Because we want everyone to go home at the end of the day,” she said.

The APD's Faith Community Conference runs through this afternoon at the Austin Community College Riverside Campus. 

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