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Austin Police Need To Dedicate More Time To Actively Engaging Community, Audit Finds

Three people talk to the left of an Austin police vehicle
Gabriel C. Pérez
Austin voters will see two propositions related to police oversight on the ballot this May.

Austin police officers should be given more time to engage with the community outside of responding to calls, city auditors say in a new report.

The auditors examined the effectiveness of the department’s community policing – that is, how well it builds relationships with individuals and groups in the community. 

According to the report, APD said officers had more time to engage with members of the community. Auditors found, however, that referred only to a few minutes between calls, as opposed to a dedicated block of time actively involved. During those few minutes, the report said, officers were also expected to perform other tasks like writing reports, checking e-mail and reading policy updates. 

At an Audit and Finance Committee meeting to discuss the report, APD Assistant Chief Troy Gay agreed that those blocks of time are small, but said the department expects officers to build relationships with every contact – including when they’re out on a call.

“Our expectation is during that call that officer will ask additional questions, ask if there are additional issues and problems in the area, in order to build those additional relationships," he said, going beyond "what they were just called there for.” 

Austin City Council Member Leslie Pool said that wasn’t in line with how she views community policing.

"For me [it] is actually being in the community, walking around, talking with folks when you’re not on a specific call out,” she said.

Pool said the differing definitions of community policing could be why people like her are disappointed about the rate of engagement.

Gay said vacancies in staffing made it more difficult for patrol officers to have larger blocks of time. He said they are trying to be more intentional with the time they do have. 

The report also found that although APD had created a number of programs to address community concerns, it wasn’t clear if they were effective. Auditors surveyed both community members and APD employees using the same questions used in 2016.

The results were mixed. For example, more employees said they had a good understanding of problems in a particular area, but that they also didn’t have time to solve them. Community members rated experiences with APD higher, but fewer thought officers were professional in their contact with them. 

The report also noted APD changed things like how it recruited and trained cadets, but didn’t set up a way to measure if those changes had a positive impact. 

In addition to making sure officers had enough time for community policing, auditors also recommended Chief Brian Manley create better ways to measure and report the effectiveness of these efforts and prioritize those with the greatest impact.

In a letter to the City Auditor dated May 8, Manley said he agreed with both recommendations. The department defined some intermediate steps, like developing engagement strategies for specific neighborhoods. APD expects to implement plans by June 2021. 

Got a tip? Email Sangita Menon at Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.

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Sangita Menon is a general assignment reporter for KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.
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