Restore Rundberg Project
By Anna Daugherty
Law enforcement officials are focusing on community engagement after the first year of a federal project for improving safety in high crime neighborhoods shows little change.
Austin received a $1 million federal grant in 2013 for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. The grant is part of an experiment that studies ways to restore neighborhoods with high crime rates.
Rundberg was one of the neighborhoods chosen for the grant and is now titled the Restore Rundberg Project. According to the Austin Police Department, the Rundberg area is home to 5 percent of the Austin population, but accounts for approximately 12 percent of violent crime in the city.
Michael Lauderdale, a social work professor at UT and sociology researcher on the project team, said fear of police leads to an underreporting of crimes in the area.
“One part of the high crime rate is the fact that there is a large immigrant community in that area who are afraid of police,” Lauderdale said. “They aren’t likely to go to the police because they are afraid of being deported.”
David Springer, also a UT social work professor and project team researcher, said the first year of the project was focused on research, planning, and identifying high-crime areas within the neighborhood.
“The Department of Justice wants to first identify the hot spots,” Springer said.
Austin Police Department Cmdr. Donald Baker, the project manager, said the success in the first year was sporadic with occasional enforcement initiatives during which police focused on numbers of arrests and citations. These “100 percent enforcement initiatives” were designed to occur spontaneously in the crime hot spots.
“A lot of times when we do the 100 percent enforcements, people don’t want to have contact with the officers,” Baker said. “They know we’re out there to make arrests so they want to stay away so they don’t get caught up in anything.”
Baker said the department is shifting to focus on community involvement this year, and is going from the 100 percent initiatives to “walking beats” during which police will patrol crime “hot spots” with a goal of maintaining visibility and creating a safer feeling in the area.
“Now, the measure of success isn’t going to be how many arrests you get or how many citations you write,” Baker said. “It’s going to be, how many contacts did you make? How many members of the community did you stop and talk to, to get information on how you can make it safer for them?”
Springer said there are 15 other cities in the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative and Austin has been grouped with cities that have similar neighborhood demographics including San Antonio; Portland, Ore., and Seattle.
Springer said Austin faces some unique challenges because the Rundberg neighborhood the largest area being covered, with over six square miles. Springer also said 85 percent of Austin police time is spent responding to emergency calls, while in Seattle it is only 60 percent, so the police have more time for patrolling and community interaction.
In a report by KVUE news on Feb. 25 Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Austin police are understaffed, and need approximately 300 more officers to be fully staffed.
Springer said the low funding and police numbers require a Austin to approach crime in a new way.
“You can’t arrest your way out of this situation,” Springer said. “We’re trying to develop trust over time with the police. We’re piloting some of these things here in Rundberg that haven’t been done before.”
Lauderdale said it was important to focus on the community more than the number of arrests, because there isn’t enough money to sustain high levels of police patrol in the area.
“A lot of people thought this grant would solve problems, and there’s just not enough money,” Lauderdale said. “It basically is a grant that should permit us to more correctly identify what are the driving factors and who are the victims.”
“It is much bigger than just what we can do with that amount of money,” he said. “The neighborhood up there is characteristic of other neighborhoods in Austin, certainly of other neighborhoods in Texas, and probably other states. So if we can learn the causes, and what are the long-term things we can do, it then becomes an experiment that is highly constructive.”
Baker said many residents in the Rundberg area have seen previous attempts to restore the neighborhood that have failed once the financial resources ran out. He said his goal with this project is sustainability, so that when the three years are over, the city doesn’t “just walk away” without lasting change.
“Our success at the end of the day is going to be, did we connect people up to multiple resources?” Baker said. “Did we did make it so that people are not only safer but they actually feel safer too?”
“This is not a sprint,” Baker said. “This is not something that you’re going to see immediate results. It’s more about the community engagement and building the foundations and networks within the community, and quantitatively that’s hard to measure, because those are really more qualitative issues.”