‘They Don’t Show Up’: Del Valle Talks Complicated Relationship With Police

By Joe Rocha | Monday, February 28th 2022

It was around midnight in the Prado neighborhood when the sound of alarms woke J Sharee Eggleston. She was half asleep. The lights were off, so she stumbled in a panic into her closet to hide. Then, she called the Travis County Sheriff's Office on her cell phone.

“It took them 30 minutes before they arrived at my home,” Eggleston says. “At the time I was very nervous. I didn’t realize that the response time would be so delayed.”

People in Del Valle have a complicated relationship with law enforcement. Slow response times leaves some folks feeling unsafe. While for others, over-policing is a safety concern. Whatever the situation might be, policing is not working for many in the community.

“If there had been an intruder, he or she could have done any form of damage and already left the scene before law enforcement even showed up,” Eggleston says.

While Eggleston feels forgotten by law enforcement officials, Hornsby Bend resident Richard Franklin III believes his neighborhood is overpoliced.

“The sheriffs in the area literally patrol out here all the time,” Franklin says. “There's no lack of policing when they want to send the police.”

Most places have one law enforcement agency. Del Valle, however, falls into both the City of Austin and Travis County jurisdiction, so both the Austin Police Department and the Travis County Sheriff's Office service the area. Franklin says he’s only been in one situation where police were needed and the response time was within minutes.

“They respond and there's four cars in the sector and all four of them go to the same thing. What happens if something else happens?” Franklin says. “In a situation like that, the overkill is why people wind up dead.”

According to a 2019 report on APD, the sector that includes Del Valle has one of the highest numbers of arrests and search and field observations.

“Race and the percentage of Black and brown people in a neighborhood is the driving factor in how frequently police will use force within that neighborhood,” Chris Harris, director of policy at the Austin Justice Coalition says.

An estimated 65% of Del Valle residents identify as Hispanic and an estimated 10% identify as Black. Franklin says the high percentage of people of color affects the way his neighborhood is policed.

“When I hear law and order, what I hear is, ‘Let's lock Black and brown people up so that we can live by ourselves the way we want to live without actually understanding that it doesn't make them any more safe, more secure,’” Franklin says.

While multiple law enforcement agencies patrol the area, some residents still face slow response times. Veronica Vazquez lives in the Los Cielos neighborhood and recently called 911 when she witnessed an incident involving teens shooting an airsoft gun.

“They ask me, ‘Where are you located?' I tell them Del Valle and they switch me over, and then I have to explain the whole story again,” Vazquez says. “And I honestly don't know where they switched me to, but whoever they are, they take two to three hours to come out here to even just evaluate the situation.”

Last year, Austin Chief of Police Joseph Chacon stated lack of staffing as the reason for slow response times by APD. But according to Harris, response times depend on the deployment decisions being made by each law enforcement agency in places like Del Valle.

“We don't really know how the staff they have now is being deployed in those communities,” he says. “What are they actually doing in a particular community? Are they prioritizing responding to calls? Or are they prioritizing certain types of hotspot policing or making sort of pretext stops of people in the community to look for other potential types of crimes?”

When Vazquez finally got a hold of law enforcement, she says she felt the situation was left unresolved.

“It was just like brushed off like, ‘If it's not happening right now in this instant, we can't help you,’” she says.

Vazquez’s neighbor, Norma Garcia, recently faced a similar issue. To feel safe, Garcia has developed workarounds like installing home security cameras and posting about incidents on Nextdoor and Facebook. While she says this helps, she would ultimately like to see more police presence in the area.

“Definitely a sub station of some sort. We’re growing. It’s a huge little city, town. We’re big and more people are moving over here,” Garcia says.

While APD doesn’t have a substation in Del Valle, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office has a station near Hornsby Bend, the neighborhood Franklin lives in. He disagrees that more police is the answer. He suggests the community instead focus on the many resources Del Valle lacks.

“Our problem is believing we can police our way to a better society, and it's not that way at all,” Franklin says. “We've escalated the conversation about criminality and those who commit crimes, but we haven't escalated the root cause of the crime.”

Del Valle has a high concentration of low-income households, lacks health care facilities, recreational activities for kids and is considered a food desert. Harris says all of these issues contribute to the increased need of emergency services.

“If we're actually able to make investments that prevent people from being driven into these systems, maybe we actually reduce the 911 calls, the emergency response needs,” Harris says.

Fixing systemic issues in Del Valle could take years. In the meantime, residents like Eggleston are left to fend for themselves.

“I have since installed security cameras, and I have obtained license to carry training,” she says. “It made me aware that I’m going to be responsible for my own protection.”

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