As a teenager in Austin in the late 1970s, Alfonza Wysinger regularly traveled around his extended neighborhood to play sports.

“Back then we could walk many blocks without fear,” he recalled during an interview last Wednesday. It was a time, Wysinger said, when being on an area playground was “about the competition, and not about violence.”

That time is largely but a memory now, with three decades of gang and drug violence having wrought many unwanted changes and damage in Wysinger’s old neighborhood.

Now, as the newly promoted commander of Austin’s 15th District, Wysinger wants those long ago memories to be part of a template for a new reality and a renewed spirit for Austin’s residents. In an interview with Austin Weekly News last Wednesday in his office, Wysinger made it clear that he intends to do his part to see to it the 15th District has every chance to realize that new and empowering reality.

Following footsteps

Like his predecessor, Wysinger comes from the Narcotics and Gang Intelligence Section (NAGIS), where, like Williams, he was a lieutenant. That fact reflects the dark reality that Austin continues to struggle under: the effects of an omnipresent retail narcotics trade run by ruthless, violent street gangs.

But talk to Wysinger and people who know him, and it’s soon evident he brings more to his new position than just solid law enforcement credentials. Cleaning up gang and drug activity is just one part of the solution in Wysinger’s view. Bringing in the community and empowering it to take effective action to make their blocks and neighborhoods better places to live is equally important, he said, and the only guarantee of long-term success.

A 19-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, Wysinger has risen quickly through the ranks. He has served in a number of key positions, including stints as a narcotics officer, sergeant, and lieutenant with the Narcotics and Gang Intelligence Section. He’s also served in various positions in the Marquette, Fillmore, South Chicago and Englewood police districts.

Wysinger’s former boss at NAGIS, Deputy Chief John Risley, said that Austin is getting both a highly capable police officer and a very caring man.

“He’s a man of great character and high integrity,” Risley said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “He’s a quiet man, in voice and demeanor. But don’t let that fool you. He’ll get the job done.”

A big part of the reason for Wysinger’s success, Risley said, is the manner in which he treats people, both police and civilians.

“He will meet their needs. He will ensure that the community is treated with the dignity and respect they should be,” said Risley. “But he’ll also ensure that the gang-bangers and drug dealers will be dealt with the way they should be dealt with.”

Great expectations

Alderman Isaac Carothers of the 29th Ward, who also serves as chairman of the City Council’s Fire and Police Commission, said he’s pleased to see former 15th District commander?”and newly promoted assistant deputy superintendent?”Eugene Williams, replaced with another exceptional officer in Wysinger.

“The only fear you have when a good guy [Williams] gets promoted is that you hope he has another good guy behind him,” Carothers said, adding that Wysinger fills the bill.

“We have great expectations of Commander Wysinger,” said Carothers Tuesday. Besides his youth and energy, Carothers said he appreciates Wysinger’s familiarity with the drug problem in Austin. As a Narcotics and Gang Intelligence Section lieutenant, Carothers notes that Wysinger supervised the recent investigations and busts of two street corner drug conspiracies in the 5500 block of West Congress and the 4900 block of Van Buren.

A personal connection

For Wysinger, his concern is both personal and professional. He still knows people in the community?””people who have watched me grow up from a little kid,” he said. Now, as both a man and a cop, he wants to help assure that they?”and everyone else?”are free to go about their lives without constant fear for their safety.

“We have great people who live in the Austin community,” he said. “I want to see [them] be able to come out and enjoy their homes and yards without fear of stray bullets and gang-bangers and drug dealers.”

Along the way, Wysinger hopes to be a role model for many young people who may have lost hope that there is any way out of the hopelessness they see around them.

“I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve been able to be a positive role model for younger people,” he said. “I want to show those young men and women out there that there is another way besides the streets.”

For Wysinger, things are coming full circle. Now 43 years old and the father of a young daughter, he recalls standing with his grandmother on the porch of their home as a 5-year-old boy, watching the National Guard drive by in the horrible wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. That proved to be the devastating start of a slow and terrible economic and social downturn that would sap the area’s spirit and energy for the rest of the 20th century.

“For 30 years there was no economic development on the West Side,” Wysinger said quietly. “You were looking at nothing but vacant lots.”

Fear replaced hope, as the area became increasingly known for drugs, gangs, fewer and fewer jobs, and most distressingly, the violence so often associated with those conditions. Now, thankfully, that is changing.

Austin on the upswing

“I think the Austin community is on the upswing,” said Wysinger, who said he feels fortunate to be coming to the 15th District at this time. “Look at the economic development going on. Now you’ve got $200,000 condos and $3-400,000 houses.” Noting a list of municipal infrastructure improvements like new schools and development on Madison Street and Roosevelt Road, Wysinger said that his intention is to work with all willing parties in his new district to foster a continuation of that progress.

Ald. Carothers, who doesn’t tire of saying to anyone who’ll listen that his ward has one sole major barrier to progress, agrees strongly with that assessment of Austin’s potential.

“The only impediment to Austin moving forward is the drug trade,” he said. “On every other front the Austin community is moving forward.”

“That’s the final linchpin, removing street corner drug sales,” Carothers said. “You take that out of Austin, and it’s considered one of the best places to live in Chicago.”

A new home

Wysinger is excited about one infrastructure improvement in particular?”the brand new 15th District headquarters that should open in September. It will be, he said, a powerful new tool to assist him in his efforts to reach out to the broader community. At 42,000 square feet, it is roughly three times the size of the old station house on Chicago Avenue. Wysinger said he has big plans for the new and spacious headquarters building. Besides being better able to conduct day-to-day police operations, the state-of-the-art facility will enable officers to involve the community more actively in their policing.

“I want to be a beacon for the community,” he said. “Put a big welcome sign out.”

Like Williams and Wysinger, NAGIS’s Risley acknowledges that even the best policing won’t work without committed community involvement.

“Anytime you can sit down and talk with the community, it’s going to help,” he said.

And Wysinger, said Risley, is more capable than most at securing community involvement.

“With his personality, he’ll have people calling him,” he said.