After police activity at east Austin park, neighbors wonder why not sooner

A car leaves Givens Park in east Austin on July 11, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
A car leaves Givens Park in east Austin on July 11, 2017. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Complaints from people who live near an east Austin park led to the arrest Sunday of a man police say was there to sell marijuana.

But people who grew up in the area around Givens Park in the Martin Luther King neighborhood say problems with people using the park to peddle drugs aren’t new — and neither are the complaints.

They believe the new police response they’ve seen may be because of the new neighbors. “Loud events at Givens Park,” Cecilia Wilson read from her tablet. Scrolling through the neighborhood social network app Nextdoor, she took note of her neighbors’ crime concerns. “Car break-ins.”

She said drug deals at Givens Park, just down the road from her house, are also a hot topic around the area.

“People have told me yes, they sell drugs, they do drugs,” Wilson said. “You can walk through and smell the weed wafting — that would be my personal experience.”

The east Austin native said that’s been a complaint at the park for a long time, but they’ve only recently seen a bigger police presence in the historically minority-dominated part of the city.

“It hasn’t been but maybe in the past three years that we’ve gotten a more visible police interaction,” she said.

Wilson has a theory as to why. “Well, now I have $800,000 worth of condos sitting right next to me,” she said.

It’s true the neighborhood is changing; old houses are being torn down and replaced by expensive modern homes.

Another neighbor who asked only to go by Lizzy said she thinks the recent complaints about drug dealing and loud parties at the park are coming from those new neighbors who didn’t grow up with the park.

Wilson agrees — and that’s why she’s unhappy it feels like police are just starting to pay attention. “Maybe the squeaky wheel gets the oil theory,” she said, “and so that now maybe that color of the squeaky wheel has changed.”

The police commander for Charlie sector, which encompasses Givens Park, said demographic changes have nothing to do with their response.

APD responds to all complaints, Commander Richard Guajardo said in a phone interview, and they’ve “always cared about crime” in the neighborhood.

In fact, he said, Givens Park is one of his “pet projects” since taking over command of the sector in December 2016. A few years back, he was a sergeant patrolling the park, he said, and saw the challenge in keeping it free of wrongdoing.

Crime cycles in and out, he said. Police crack down, the crime stops, police focus their attention elsewhere, the crime returns and the cycle repeats.

Guajardo said the most recent complaints came from commanders’ forums, a city council member’s office and people calling the station.

“A lot of these people wouldn’t bring the situations they bring to the park to their doorsteps,” Nook Turner said. His solution is to help show the value in the park.

Turner organizes the weekly summer concert series Jump On It, which happens at Givens every Wednesday during the summer months. They provide more than just music and family activities, he said, including job opportunities.

“We do health screenings, we do fitness tests, we do dental,” Turner said, “we do all the resources the community needs.”

He’s tired of seeing headlines about crime in the park and wants people to focus more on the positives, but as a lifelong east Austin resident, he said, there are things there he’s not proud of. One of his goals is ensuring the community knows how important the space was to past generations of African-Americans in Austin.

“If we educate people and they understand the value of it,” he said, “then the treatment of it is totally different.”

Turner doesn’t want to lose the park. “This is culture, this is our heritage, this is our history,” he said.

Wilson doesn’t want to lose it, either. “You want to spend a nice day at the park,” she said. “You don’t want it to be spoiled by somebody wandering through trying to sell you drugs.”

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