May 20, 2017

Austin Police Officers Build Trust in a Time of Immigration Raids

Reporting Texas


Officers Matthew Carvahlo and Stephen Yurco respond to a call about theft at the George Washington Carver Branch of the Austin Public Library on Wed. March 22. Betsy Joles / Reporting Texas

Austin Police Officers Matthew Carvahlo, right, and Stephen Yurco respond to a reported theft at the George Washington Carver branch of the Austin Public Library. Immigration raids and the state’s new “sanctuary cities” law could make it harder for police to establish trust in minority communities. Betsy Joles/Reporting Texas

On recent Wednesday afternoon, Austin Police officers Matthew Carvahlo and Stephen Yurco roll their cruisers to a stop in front of Santa Rita Courts, a low-income housing project in East Austin. They’ve received a call about a curbside fight.

The officers, both 25, are in the early hours of a 10-hour shift in one of the city’s most densely populated Latino communities, with residents from Mexico, Honduras, Colombia and El Salvador, among other countries.

Carvahlo and Yurco approach a woman sitting on her stoop, but when she says she saw no signs of a fight, they use the stop to practice community policing. Carvahlo rummages in the trunk of his cruiser, pulling out a handful of applique tattoos. He hands them to two children playing on a nearby jungle gym. The encounter ends when their mother, seeing the police, calls her kids inside.

Community-police relations have been fragile on the East Side since Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raids led to 51 arrests in Austin last February. Even in the best of times, community attitudes toward law enforcement can be filled with mistrust.

“We’re the most in-your-face form of government because we’re out there every day,” Carvahlo said in an interview during the patrol, adding that he thinks his role is to protect the community, not to target people whose immigration status might be suspect.

Back at the East Austin police substation, Lt. Frank Rodriguez says he worries ICE actions could create new challenges for local police and lead to unreported crimes. “[I]f they become victims of crimes, they’re going to be afraid to call us,” he said in an interview.

Such challenges aren’t limited to East Austin. A 2016 report, commissioned by the City of Austin and conducted by California-based Matrix Consulting Group, found that 63 percent of police officers citywide felt that Austin’s policing policies were sufficient to gain community trust.

Sofia Casini, immigration programs coordinator at Grassroots Leadership, a community advocacy group in East Austin, says its deportation hotline routinely receives calls underscoring police mistrust. The number has sharply increased since the recent ICE raids, she says.

“We’ll hear from people … wanting advice on their risks of being deported … if they call the police and share what’s just happened to them,” Casini said in a telephone interview.

5 PM: Carvahlo pulls up for another run at community policing at Booker T. Washington Terrace, a public housing development. He says hello to Veronica Velasquez, 43, and Frank Alvarez, 42, who are sitting outside their apartment enjoying the late afternoon.

They smile at Carvahlo as he walks over to greet them, but when he returns to his squad car, they talk about how being Latino makes them feel they could be targeted by police. Velasquez, an assembly-line worker from Mexico, came to Austin in 1995. Because of the recent ICE raids, she says she feels greater risk comes with any police interaction.

Tensions over how local law enforcement deals with immigration status have sharpened because of the ICE raids, and because of the new state law banning “sanctuary cities” where officers don’t regularly check immigration papers. Signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on May 7, the law allows police to verify immigration at traffic stops and other encounters. Currently checks are done only on those arrested. Abbott singled out Austin as a sanctuary city as he signed off on the law live on Facebook. The law doesn’t take effect until September, but is already the subject of a lawsuit contending it is unconstitutional.

It’s too early to say how the sanctuary cities bill will change the way officers Carvahlo and Yurco do their jobs. Carvahlo estimates he encounters at least one undocumented person every day, but when responding to routine calls, identification isn’t his main concern. As long as people have some form of identification, he doesn’t ask questions. “Where you come from, whether you’re here illegally—that’s none of our business,” he said.

6:30 PM: Yurco and Carvahlo park their cruisers at Fiesta Gardens on the southern edge of their patrol zone, where they greet Officer Mike Metcalf. Metcalf, 44, says he’s gotten to know a number of undocumented people. No one is treating him differently since the ICE operations, he says, because of the relationships he’s built with the community during 19 years on the East Austin beat.

Lt. Rodriguez worries that the federal immigration raids could change that. When his department started holding forums to explain police policies to East Austin residents, few people from immigrant communities attended. Rodriquez now sends officers to Sunday church services as a way to build trust. “It’s gotten to the point where we’re actually going where we can find them to relay that message,” he said.

On a recent Friday after Mass, Fernando Gonzales stands outside Cristo Rey Church, a Hispanic parish with a congregation thought to be heavily undocumented. Gonzalez, 42, says he has lived undocumented in East Austin since 1994. Originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, Gonzalez has been driving without a license for five years, but has only been given a warning by police, who he says have never done anything to make him distrust them. “They’re not trying to kick us out,” he said.

In a telephone interview, Silvero Martinez, 62, a leader of the Pastoral Council, a leadership group at the church, says the relationship with local police is generally positive, but communities are still hesitant. “I don’t think they’re 100 percent secure,” he said. Before Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez took office in January, Martinez says he recalls immigrants being arrested and detained for minor offenses — one of the reasons for lingering distrust.

9:30 PM: Carvahlo’s last call of the day is a three-car fender-bender. Pulling on a reflective yellow vest and flipping on his lights, Carvahlo steps out of his cruiser to survey the scene. Emergency personnel have set up a stretcher for an elderly woman who was shaken up when an airbag deployed in her car.

Meanwhile, Carvahlo does the paperwork. Sitting in the front seat of his cruiser, he copies information from one driver’s Texas license and from another’s Honduran ID card. Because no arrests were made, he processes both documents the same way.

As the ambulance pulls away, Carvahlo logs the call into his computer, flips off his flashing lights and pulls out into the night — just another day on the job. Although policies for this part of his job may be subject to change, his personal philosophy remains intact. “If you treat people with respect, you won’t have a problem,” he said.