Protests have continued in Chicago and across the nation following the non-indictment decisions in Ferguson Missouri Nov. 24, and New York City Dec. 4, in police shootings of unarmed black men last summer.
Relations between the police and community have been strained in those and many other cities for years, decades, even longer. Distrust of the police in Chicago communities like Austin have been become generational and nearly long-lasting.
Al Wysinger, who grew up on the West Side, knows that history personally.
Born and raised in Austin, Wysinger can remember how the police treated young black men like him growing up. It was those bad experiences that led him to want to become a Chicago police officer.
“Growing up in the neighborhoods that I did — the North Lawndales, the Austins and the Englewoods — it wasn’t always very good encounters with police officers, and there was nothing that we were doing, just standing and living there in the neighborhoods,” Wysinger said. “You can’t choose where you’re born and where you’re raised or the environments that you grew up in. But just because you’re in it does not mean that you’re of it.”
Sitting in his office at Chicago Police headquarters, 3510 S. Michigan, Wysinger recalled how the police force was back then. The cops weren’t your neighbors or church members, and few looked like him. Residents didn’t trust the police and many outright feared or hated them. Instead of distancing himself and disdaining law enforcement, he looked to join it in order to change things.
“There are a lot of things in life that people aren’t going to like and agree with. But rather than take the negative approach and making bad decisions, I think that the best way to make change to an organization is from within,” he said. “You become a police officer. You go back and give back to your community. You go back and patrol the areas where you grew up. And that way you can ensure that the people in your community are treated with respect.
“You become that force multiplied, because when people see you do it and give back, it’s going to want to make them do it,” said Wysinger, a former commander of Austin’s 15th District police.
Wysinger moved up in the department ranks during his nearly 30-year career, including as a narcotics officer in the gang and drug unit, and eventually 15th District commander in 2005. He was promoted from that position three years later to deputy chief of the organized crime unit. In 2011, he was promoted to First Deputy Superintendent by Garry McCarthy, who was hired by Mayor Emanuel for the No. 1 post earlier that year.
As first deputy, Wysinger said he’s tried to improve the culture within the department. That hasn’t happened overnight and there’s still much to be done, but Wysinger insists things are changing for the better.
The department, he says, has instituted programs under McCarthy to improve the way cops interact with the community. Officers participate in “Peace Circles,” a program where officers and community members come together to discuss openly how each side views one another.
“We’ve been doing this in a couple of my districts. And it gets my officers to understand what the public feels and sees from the eyes of a citizen, and we also reverse roles and let the public know what we see from the eyes of law enforcement,” Wysinger said. “And you’d be amazed at how that dialogue actually helps foster relationships between the police and the people we come in contact with. It’s very open and free-flowing.
“And when guys walk out of the room, law enforcement says ‘wow, man, we didn’t know they looked at us like that. We didn’t know that the things we did made them feel like that.’ And the citizens tell us, ‘wow, we didn’t know you guys were trained to be on alert like this, and we didn’t know that the little things that we do, you could perceive as being dangerous,'” Wysinger said.
Prior to McCarthy’s appointment, Wysinger said the department’s Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) has looked to improve relations. Programs like the Explorer Scouts and peer mediation juries focus on youth. The National Night Out and Hip Hop Tuesdays are larger community events, Wysinger said.
Changing department culture
But that generational divide between the cops and community also has roots in the department itself.
To change some of that old-school culture and mentality from within, the department has officers go through training under its “procedural justice and legitimacy” program. Instituted in 2012, the program has seen nearly 9,000 officers and supervisors participate, according to Wysinger.
“We pretty much get them in the police academy and let them know that if we want this thing to be successful, then you have to treat people they way you would want to be treated,” he said. “You have to be legitimate in order to be perceived as being legitimate. If there’s a distrust from the public and they don’t feel that you are a legitimate policeman in their eyes, they don’t have to respect your authority.
“But if you can portray and get them to honestly believe that you are legitimate…these people are going to be much more apt to comply with what it is you want them to do.”
Barbara West, Austin’s current district commander, went through the procedural justice program. A West Side native herself, she’s spent 20 years on the force, working with CAPS, internal affairs and human resources before her promotion to 15th District commander in 2012.
West said she didn’t have much interaction with police growing up good or bad. Growing up in Garfield Park, West came from a strong family with a strict mother. Though she was “no angel” as a kid, she said she never got in trouble with the law.
“I never had a relationship with the police. I was never a curfew violator. My relationship with the police was to see them driving by or responding to, maybe, a call but I was never stopped by the police. Maybe because I’m female; that makes a difference too. But I never really had a personal contact,” she said.
But West was inspired to become a cop as a kid from her favorite TV show.
Get Christie Love! was a 1974 police drama about a tough black female officer played by actress Teresa Graves. Love’s catchphrase when making an arrest was “You’re under arrest, Sugah.” It only lasted a season on ABC, but had a big impact on West.
Since becoming 15th District commander, West has looked to do increase community outreach in the schools, with nonprofits and neighborhood churches. The district has SROs (school resource officers) assigned to the high schools, and she said her CAPS office is reinstituting the old “Officer Friendly” program from the early 1980s back into Austin’s grammar schools.
She’s also done more outreach with businesses through the district’s business sub-committee she created. The district does a summer-long outreach via “100 Block-100 Churches.” The program targets high-crime street corners where congregations not only hold prayer vigils but pass out resource information on homelessness, teen dating violence jobs, among others.
West began her career as a beat officer in Austin. She said the department has gotten much younger during that time. Some of newer training, like the procedural justice program, she added, is “helping change the culture.”
“That’s something where it teaches an officer to explain to people why you’re stopping them, because they need to understand why. You just don’t stop and say ‘well, here’s the ticket’ and go on about your business. But it teaches them, ‘Hey sir, I’m stopping you. Do you know why I’m stopping you?…Well, I’m stopping you because you ran this red light, I’m issuing you a citation; you’ll have to appear here on this date…’ So you explain to them the reason why you’re stopping them.
“Or, let’s say it’s a street stop: ‘Well, I’m stopping you because I got a description of a wanted offender in a robbery and you have on the same type of jacket and color pants that was described over the radio.’ So that gives them the reason, and most people after you kind of tell them why — most people — will not have a bad taste in their mouth when they disengage from the contact. Unfortunately, some with have a bad taste and we try to do the best we can.
“Everybody’s not going to be happy about being stopped by the police, because you’re interfering with them going to work or going about their day. It’s a nuisance because they’re like ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, so why you stopping me?'”