alison-austin2_web.jpgMIAMI – What started out as a short-notice request from Miami’s police chief to meet with some of his department’s counterparts from Ireland has morphed into a six-day, all-expense paid trip to that country for one of Liberty City’s most revered community leaders.

Alison Austin, CEO of the Belafonte Tacolcy Center, a longstanding community agency that provides myriad services to youth and their families, said that when Miami Police Chief John Timoney asked her to meet with the group of Irish police officers, she was not given a “memo” on what she should or should not say.

Consequently, she and an impromptu panel simply said what was true. The panel included her husband, South Florida Times photographer Khary Bruyning, who represented the area’s homeowners association, a community resident “who happened to be at the center” and Hattie Willis, founder of Communities United, a non-profit group of homeowner associations in Miami.

“What came up, came out,” Austin said of the roughly 90-minute session at the Tacolcy Center last March.

The group was in Miami for several days prior to meeting with the panel to “observe community policing strategies in inner cities,” Austin said, adding that the group had been given a sanitized version of how the city of Miami’s police department interacts with the Liberty City community.

What they got from the panel at Tacolcy, however, was apparently closer to what actually occurs, including what Austin described as cold relations between police and the community.

The group visited Boston and Miami as a part of Department of Statefunded program at the Center for Irish Program’s Irish Institute at Boston College. The program supports peace and reconciliation through educational seminars and personal visits from public officials, business leaders and educators from Ireland.

The program includes a two-part strategy that involves the Irish officers’ trip to the United States, and a “follow-up” visit to Ireland by a U.S. expert, to share best-practice strategies employed by community groups and law enforcement.

What Austin shared with the group in Miami apparently resonated so deeply with the group from Ireland that she was identified as the U.S. expert who will visit there in the spring. 

In an emailed statement, Niamh Lynch, director of the Irish institute, said, “The Irish police professionals were exceptionally impressed by all that Alison and her colleagues at the Belafonte Tacolcy Center have done toward addressing some of the root causes of youth alienation and violence.  What they found particularly innovative was the way the Center, in addition to mentoring young people, is an advocate and a voice for kids that might otherwise be without many allies.  They also found refreshing Alison's frank assessment of what she believes police authorities are doing right (a lot) and what they could be doing better.’’

Austin said the Liberty City panel’s candor connected with the group.

“Because we got no prep on why they were here – we just told them the truth. As is turns out, they were so blown away by the honesty in which we shared, that…the woman [Lynch] from Boston College came to me and said, ‘We’ve been here for almost two weeks and this was one of the most interesting and engaging conversations that we have had.’ None of the things that we talked about the police had shared,” Austin recalled.

The honesty the panel referred to described the mutual trust and respect once held by Liberty City’s elders and the police that no longer exists among its younger residents. The conversation also touched on the sense of freedom that permeated the area decades ago because of the police presence, and how that sense of freedom and trust has been replaced by an indifference so pervasive that young boys vandalized several vans at the Tacolcy center on a Sunday afternoon in broad daylight.  The center sits across the street from a “round the clock’’ manned police station.

“Once upon a time, the police was a part of the community,” Austin explained, adding that, “The community now feels that the police is the enemy.”

Austin’s selection for the Ireland trip represents yet another complexity between her organization and Miami’s police department. She said just a few days prior to the Ireland group’s visit that she had harsh words for police Major Roy Brown because of his decision to relocate an officer who was born and raised in the community and with whom the community shared a trusting relationship.

On the one hand, the department’s decision to relocate the officer despite his connection to the community conveyed a seeming disregard for the residents’ wishes. On the other hand, the decision by Brown and Timoney to select Austin and her fellow panel members to interact with the foreign officers spoke of a regard for her leadership and reputation in the area.

Brown said the community’s dynamics are vastly different than they were years ago, therefore, the police department’s approach to dealing with them had to adjust accordingly.

“That old relationship that Alison is accustomed to, unfortunately, the times have changed and the issues that police departments deal with, especially in this community, the amount of violent crimes that we deal with, we just don’t have the time to put forth that effort getting out of the car doing the walking beat,” Brown said.

The officer’s relocation, Brown said,  had nothing to do with disrespecting the community, but everything to do with affording him the career advancement he deserved.

On Austin’s upcoming visit to Ireland, Brown said, “I think it was an excellent selection, I was the person who recommended the people from Ireland to visit Belafonte Tacolcy because of the very close relationship that the city of Miami police department has with Alison. There’s a lot of interaction and we share a lot ideas. Our goal is the same.’’

Complexities notwithstanding, Austin said she sees her role as a conduit to improved relations between local law enforcement and the community. 

To that end, the panel shared with their Irish visitors their efforts to mend the relationship. One of those efforts included a spring 2008 basketball tournament between police and residents.

“The way that we were really able to get them to agree to the tournament [was to convince them] that it’s not every day you get to legally kick the police’s ass,” Austin said with a chuckle, referring to the game between police and Fathers of the Hood, a local community group. “At the end of the tournament, Fathers of the Hood won everything.”

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Alison Austin