A packed room at the Ella Austin Community Center during a discussion on neighborhood crime is held with Chief William McManus of the San Antonio Police Department. Photo by Scott Ball.
A packed room at the Ella Austin Community Center during a discussion on neighborhood crime with San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus in February, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.

More than 60 near-Eastside residents filled the Ella Austin Community Center Monday night for a continuing community conversation about crime and public safety, with residents expressing their frustration to San Antonio Police Chief William McManus that conditions do not seem to be improving.

“Well, from this perspective it’s the same,” one speaker told Chief McManus.

The meeting followed a late January session where residents first brought their neighborhood concerns to the surface in hopes of sparking change. This time, each person in attendance had a packet with a meeting agenda and a condensed list of the most common issues facing the Eastside, based on information gathered at the first meeting.

Community members were invited to submit comments and suggestions for addressing each neighborhood issue. McManus intends to direct local police units to prepare an action plan to respond to the concerns. Tensions were high in the room and more than an hour of discussion took place before McManus could describe his intended plan of action.

Chief McManus looks to his right as community member Liz Franklin turns around to call on someone from the crowd. Photo by Scott Ball.
Chief McManus looks to his right as community member Liz Franklin turns around to call on someone from the crowd. Photo by Scott Ball.

Brian Dillard, vice president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, said it’s hard to track progress in the area. Unfortunately, Dillard said, most residents are used to it.

“We’re used to ebb and flow when it comes to crime,” he said. “It’s hard to say ‘Yes, it’s down’ because in a week or a month the same thing happens again.”

Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) joined McManus in leading he discussion, encouraging residents to stay on track and work with police on a specific action plan.

“This is a pilot program,” Warrick said. “We can’t just attack the whole Eastside, it’s too big … we have to have something that actually works here so that the community can get behind us and we can move it to other communities further out.”

Lack of adequate street lighting, a general distrust of police officers, the constant presence of vagrants in public spaces, and persistent drug dealing and the property crimes that come with such activity were among the issues frustrating residents. Each topic of conversation led to multiple residents seeking to speak.

Liz Franklin said an increased police presence would discourage illegal activity.

“On Hackberry, if (SAPD) is parked out there I’m not seeing the same traffic,” she said. “I’m seeing it down the block and so now you ride down the block. It is doing something, the presence.”

Longtime Eastside resident Fay Carter said police need to crack down on individuals drinking and gambling in public because those activities lead to more serious problems.

“I was once on the other side of the fence,” she said, speaking of her own past incarceration. “When police considered me a smaller crime person, well I was with people doing bigger crimes, so we’ve got to get everybody off the streets to let them know that you will arrest them because when I knew that nobody would arrest me, I committed more crimes.”

Eastside resident and former inmate Fay Carter speaks to Chief McManus about the safety of her neighborhood. "I was a criminal on the inside, so I know what goes on everyday." she said. Photo by Scott Ball.
Eastside resident and former inmate Fay Carter speaks to Chief McManus about the safety of her neighborhood. “I was a criminal on the inside, so I know what goes on everyday,” she said. Photo by Scott Ball.

Warrick said more economic development has the potential to push out criminals.

“We have to understand that economic development also deters crime,” he said. “So when people move businesses in … and you have that positive activity on the streets that moves crime out of places.”

State Sen. José Menéndez also attended the meeting and urged the group to start neighborhood associations for their respective area if one is not in place.

McManus did not provide exact numbers on Eastside arrests over the last month since the first meeting, but he did say the police presence in the area has remained consistent.

“There have been a lot of cops here since that time and before, and they’re still here and some folks have said that they’ve seen (SAPD’s) presence more,” he said.

SAPD is working toward a “shift in police culture,” McManus added, implementing reform measures intended to reduce police use of force against unarmed citizens and to teach officers methods for responding to calls by engaging with people in ways designed to defuse potentially violent confrontations.

Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) speaks with San Antonio Police Chief William McManus as Senator José Menéndez looks on. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) speaks with San Antonio Police Chief William McManus as Senator José Menéndez looks on. Photo by Scott Ball.

As far as next steps, the District 2 staff and SAPD will review the packets from the meeting and begin to address the problems listed in order of importance. By putting their thoughts down on paper, Councilman Warrick said, Eastside residents are doing their part in moving the community forward.

“People in the community have to do their part by giving us the information we need so we can better help them,”  he said. “If they give us the documentation, then they can expect that we’re holding ourselves accountable.”

The information will be distributed to the appropriate City departments to take care of the issues, he said.

SAPD and District 2 staff will be in contact in the coming weeks with neighborhood leaders to set a date for third meeting, McManus said. Long-term change will take time, he added.

“We can fix anything for a short time, but the trick is sustaining it,” he said. “We need to address these issues at their fundamental root cause.”

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*Top image: A packed room at the Ella Austin Community Center during a discussion on neighborhood crime is held with Chief William McManus of the San Antonio Police Department. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com