Chants of “Black Lives Matter,” and “No justice, No peace,” are filling the streets of cities across the country. Social activists have called for change in the way police officers interact with minority communities. In Austin, some young adults are at the frontlines of these protests.
“I’ve participated in a number of protests following the Michael Brown decision,” student activist Aderius Ross said. “I’ve linked up with a couple of organizations here in the community and just networking with people in Austin who are committed to the same causes as I am.”
There have only been a handful of cases where officers shot and killed unarmed civilians in Austin. In the summer of 2013, former APD Detective Charles Kleinart shot unarmed Larry Jackson Jr., a black man, after he tried entering a local bank that was previously robbed. Kleinart questioned Jackson as he tried to get into the bank which led to a foot chase, physical struggle, and eventually resulted in Kleinart shooting Jackson in the back of the neck.
Incidents like this highlight the divide between law enforcement and the community they serve. These young crusaders feel the best way to bridge the gap is for officers to forge relationships with community members.
“It’s getting rid of the us vs them mentality, I think. Door-to-door maybe,” Ross said. “Saying ‘Hey, I’ll be patrolling this community. I want to become a familiar face,’ rather than just ‘Me, I’m in an authoritative position, you’re just a civilian,’ be more friendly, be more interactive, creating actual communities.”
Recent high school graduate and activist Alexa Spencer believes it also falls on the community to not cast all officers in a negative light.
“I think it all begins with intentions. There are police officers [who] have good hearts,” Spencer said. “Don’t make an assumption that a police officer is automatically a bad person because that’s not always true.”
The Austin Police Department is working to remedy the distrust between both groups. In 2003, the Cultural Immersion Program was enacted to help officers familiarize themselves with the communities they patrol.
“We try to work with Travis County as well and with other city departments to try and bridge that gap between the community and police,” African-American Outreach Liaison Sharon Cannon said. “We have a lot of town hall meetings, and we invite the community to come so they can actually talk with the officers to air out their complaints.”
If you ask Alexa Spencer, love is the true cure for what seems like a constant cycle of violence.
“Stand for love, walk with love, move with love, don’t judge,” Spencer said. “Tackle hate right now. That’s what we need to focus on.”
This story airs on KLRU Saturday, July 11, 2015 at 6:30pm during PBS NewsHour Weekend.