Austin’s 15th District Commander Eugene Williams is ‘cautiously optimistic’ as he celebrates 2004
successes and works toward an even better 2005.

For years, the West Side of Chicago, and the Austin neighborhood in particular, has been a convenient supermarket for illegal drugs for people throughout the suburbs and Chicago, with open-air drug spots dotting literally a hundred of its street corners. That reality colored every aspect of life in Austin, condemning most Austin residents to a life where violence, or the threat of it, was a daily reality. It slowly created a numbing acceptance, or at least an expectation, of violence as a fact of life in Austin.

But that atmosphere has been changing over the last three years, and Eugene Williams, commander of the 15th District, has been at the center of much of the change. Since arriving in Austin as the top cop in December of 2001, Williams has overseen a concerted and focused effort to turn around decades of hopelessness. Success, he said at the outset, would depend on cooperation between police and those they are sworn to protect.

The mantra coming out of Chicago Police headquarters at 35th and State under Police Superintendent Phil Cline the past two years has been “gangs, guns and drugs.” Williams is leading that chant locally in the 15th District. At the heart of the street violence that has plagued the neighborhood for decades is gang activity, and that gang activity is fueled by the drug trade. Violence is the inevitable by-product of the final component of that lethal triumvirate”the guns gang members use to both protect and expand their turf.

The response by Williams and other police officials has been to take away the gangbangers’ guns, their drugs, and their turf, and they have prosecuted that war with a relentlessness and effectiveness not seen in the past.

Last year Chicago police took down 49 open-air drug markets and secured charges against more than 700 individuals. The biggest raids occurred within eight days of each other last May, when local, state and federal police executed massive and extensive raids, first on the Gangster Disciples on the South Side, then a week later against members of the Mafia Insane Vice Lords and Four Corner Hustlers on the West Side.

Already this year, police have made at least three busts on the West and Northwest sides, plus at least one local operation in the 15th District that swept up two dealers and 38 buyers.

Williams recently sat down with local reporters for over an hour and a half to discuss the past year and his hopes and plans for 2005. With a police radio chattering behind him, Williams sat behind his desk on the second floor of the antiquated Austin District station on Chicago Avenue. He’s a tall man with an approachable demeanor that belies his hard-nosed cop resume, which includes running the Chicago Police Department’s Gang and Narcotics Unit before becoming head of the 15th.

“We’re cautiously optimistic with respect to crime conditions in the 15th District,” he began. But though pleased with the progress he sees, Williams repeatedly stressed during the 90-minute session that the work is far from complete. There are still too many homicides, he stated, even as he noted that the district had its lowest number of homicides since 1992. There is also still too much drug activity, and too much burglary and robbery, much, if not most, related to the drug trade.

“There’s still much to be done,” he said.

Still, Williams can point to encouraging signs.

“I was pleasantly surprised this New Year’s Eve,” he said. “Calls for ‘shots fired’ were down, way down.” Didn’t hear a lot of gunfire. Usually, said Williams, he could sit in his office and listen to gunfire down the alley.

Part of the reason those reports are down is that police are intensely focused on the use of guns. Any guns. The New Year’s Eve before last, Police Superintendent Phil Cline himself was in on a gun arrest on the border between the 15th and 11th Districts.

That attitude, that cops must be, first and foremost, about protecting citizens, starts at the top, both of the Chicago Police Department, and in the 15th District.

“All of the command staff of the police department were out and riding around New Year’s Eve,” said Williams.

Cline put out a mandate last year to reduce violent crime. Unlike in past years, the new superintendent also worked diligently to provide his troops with the resources needed to effectively attack the problem.

“Primarily we’re talking about homicides and aggravated batteries,” said Williams. “And any crime committed on the public way.” Basically, anything involving a firearm.

Along with more aggressive policing, the Austin neighborhood has also responded.

“That’s one of the things that I’m really, really pleased with,” said Williams. “The response we’ve gotten from our residents.” Williams credits citizens and clergy with calling police and sharing information in what he terms “an unprecedented manner.”

“That allows us to put the cops on the dot, so to speak,” said Williams. “To place them where they’re needed.”

The statistics show that it’s been working. Murders have dropped the past two years, down from 44 in 2002, to 31 in 2003. Last year there were 21 murders”19, if you don’t count the two killings that stemmed from shootings in 1994 and 1999. Eleven of those have been solved so far.

Two other 2004 murders involved the type of spontaneous violent reaction that is almost impossible to prevent, including one last fall in which a girl stabbed her 17-year-old cousin to death during an argument over some French fries.

But the vast majority of preventable killings”and shootings”are gang-related, Williams stressed. During that same period, shootings have also declined, from 229 in 2002, to 144 in 2003, and just 86 last year.

“Our primary focus is on the gangs and the guns and the drugs,” he said. “You could put another 200 officers on the street, and … you won’t stop the instances where someone stabs another over a bag of french fires.”

Still, Austin has gone since Sept. 12 without a homicide, a string of 125 days up through Wednesday.

“We really want to go the rest of the year,” said Williams. Some of that success is luck, he admits. But it’s also the result of much hard work and smart planning.

“The evolution of gun teams has been crucial,” he said. The Austin area currently has at least three gun teams working in it, with tactical cops from the 15th and 11th Districts routinely working together to target deadly weapons. In addition, police now often turn gun cases over to the Feds, who have the sort of vast resources and experience that produce high gun-case conviction rates.

“The U.S. Attorney wins over 95 percent of their cases,” said Williams. More ominously for those convicted in federal court, he pointed out, when you get 20 or 30 years in federal court, you do 85 percent of your sentence, so a 30-year sentence means at least 25 years behind bars.

“And you’ll never go to a penitentiary in Illinois. So no family visits,” Willimas added.

As he looks to 2005, Williams sees both a new day dawning for the Austin neighborhood as well as a lot of hard work remaining to be done. While somewhat satisfied, he’s anything but complacent.

“I never want to get away from the fact that we have a lot of work to do,” he said.