Suspicious circumstances surrounding the shooting of unarmed blacks by police are not unique to Ferguson, Missouri.
It has happened in many cities nationwide. It has happened on the West Side, including in Austin.
The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, a month ago sparked community protests and outrage over police brutality. And it brought to the forefront the overall and ongoing problem of poor relations between the police and black citizens in many U.S. cities.
There have been similar incidents here, most notably the shooting of Aaron Harrison of North Lawndale, who was fatally shot by an 11th District police officer on the evening of Aug. 6, 2007. Police said Harrison had pointed a semi-automatic weapon at the officer, who then shot Harrison. Police said Harrison was “acting unusual” while holding his waist and standing with a group of black males in front of a local store. Witnesses said Harrison had no gun.
No weapon was found on Mike Brown in the Aug. 9 daytime shooting in Ferguson.
Austin’s Rev. Ira Acree has connections to both incidents. He was among the community activists asking for answers and transparency in the Harrison shooting, which resulted in protests and unrest in the community. And the pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church was also in Ferguson for Brown’s funeral, Aug. 25, a ceremony attended by an estimated 4,000 people.
“What’s happening in Ferguson should be a major alert to the rest of the country. It’s a travesty that people have to live like that in their own towns,” Acree said in an interview prior to the funeral.
One of the problems in Ferguson and other communities is the lack of diversity on those police forces, Acree said. Ferguson is nearly 70 percent African American but the police force of 53 officers only has three who are black.
“It looks as though Ferguson didn’t get the word that segregation is over,” Acree said. “When you don’t have diversity, when you don’t have people in the police force who look like the community they’re serving, this creates the kind of tension and unrest, and distrust of the system, that you’re seeing in Ferguson.”
According to Chicago police data, blacks make up about 30 percent of its police ranks citywide. The West Side neighborhoods, including North Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park, and Austin, have black populations near or above 90 percent.
Such a disparity can lead to distrust in the community, said Acree.
Last year, the department launched a campaign to hire more officers to better reflect the neighborhoods they serve. Acree launched his own community campaign at that time to get more black men in particular to take the police exams. Acree couldn’t say just how many people took the exam because the department would have that data. But the purpose, he said, is to have a police force that looks like the community it serves.
In a joint interview with Austin’s three aldermen prior to Brown’s shooting, the elected officials also called for more diversity in Chicago’s police ranks.
“One of the issues the community complains about, and that we’re trying to work with with police, is diversity,” said 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts. “When we look at our neighborhood, our community always wants to know why we don’t have African Americans. Just the last year the superintendent and everyone recognized that, so we put on a campaign; all of us pushed to get more African Americans to apply. We won’t even apply to be a police officer. But when we do, we found that African Americans couldn’t pass a certain exam.”
That, Acree added, is something the department also needs to address — if the exams are written in a way that discourages certain people from applying. Mitts noted that improving diversity starts at the top. She and other aldermen submitted a recommendation to the mayor to appoint former 15th District commander and Austin native Al Wysinger as superintendent. Wysinger instead was named first deputy superintendent, the No. 2 top job in the department.
“We saw the need,” Mitts said. “If the crime is happening predominantly with African Americans, and I think Hispanics would be second to us, then why shouldn’t we have someone who understands that culture?”
In addition to hiring practices, the department needs better overall interaction with the community, the aldermen said.
“There’s a definite divide, in my opinion, between the community and the police department,” said 28th Ward Ald. Jason Irvin. “There’s a level of distrust. Warranted or unwarranted, there is that level of distrust. I think the department can do a better job of engaging residents around issues of crime. I think the department has, in some respects, put the community on the back-burner to try to deal with the issues of crime, and I think that’s not the right approach to take because you have to have the community involved. At the end of the day, the police are the community and the community are the police.
“Without that togetherness, it’s very difficult for them to do their jobs and also difficult for the community to feel that it is adequately protected,” Ervin said.
With respect to culture, he noted, there’s a difference in how the South Side and West Side operate, which the department needs to better understand.
“It’s not the same. It’s not a monolith across the city of Chicago amongst African Americans,” he said. “It’s really about engaging people. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.”
Ald. Deborah Graham, of the 29th Ward, said the police department has made strides in addressing community issues. Events and activities, like the annual National Night Out event every summer hosted by departments nationwide, is an example.
But the police alone, she said, can’t solve all of the problems.
“This is a combined effort of the police department and the community together. First of all, parents need to know where the children are at at all times. There’s a community element there that we need to get addressed, so that we’ll know what’s happening in the community,” Graham said. “The police have their hands full. Now there certainly needs to continue to be a measure that’s taken of whether every officer on the street is addressing crime on his post at all times when they see it, and that they’re not just driving by, that they’re stopping; they’re actually getting out and evaluating who’s out on the street.”
Graham noted the city’s CompStat initiative, launched in 2011 by Police Supt. Garry McCarthy. Started in the mid-’90s in New York City, the program brings district commanders together in weekly meetings with the superintendent to break down crime stats in their districts. McCarthy headed New York’s Newark police department before becoming Chicago’s top cop in 2011.
“I’ve attended those meetings and CompStat talks about how police officers should be getting out of their cars, making contacts with individuals out there. So they’re filling out those contact cards and talking to different folks. Whether that individual is involved in crime or not at that particular time, they would be able to tell you potentially who’s in the area at the time,” Graham said, adding that such interaction can provide needed intelligence to the police.
But getting the community to trust the police to provide such info isn’t easy, the aldermen acknowledged. Mitts said the crimes involving former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who was found guilty in 2010 of torturing criminal suspects over a 20-year period, still lingers, causing many residents to mistrust any law enforcement.
But it’s not just the fear of police, the aldermen said. There is also fear of retribution from gangs looking to enforce the “no-snitchin'” street rule.
Acree insists the community must take ownership of that issue.
“Someone needs to be willing to step up and make that sacrifice,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of people with that Rosa Parks or that Dr. King way. But as far as what the community can do, someone has to be willing to say that I will make that ultimate sacrifice and put my life on the line for a just cause.”