11th District Commander Dwayne Betts during a public event last year. | File.

There was a moment of subtle awkwardness during a Jan. 6 community meeting hosted by Ald Chris Taliaferro (29th) at the Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd. At the beginning of the meeting, Taliaferro urged residents not to ask any questions about the “issues that are going on with the police department.”

But it was 15th District Police Commander Dwayne Betts who broached the sensitive subject early in his speech at the meeting. He said he wanted to tackle the “the “500 pound elephant in the room” head-on.

“I’m not going to act like I don’t know nothing, like I haven’t seen nothing,” he said. “It affects me personally, because I’m the kind of guy who likes to speak to people.”‘

The commander said that, since the video of McDonald’s shooting was released, many young people he knows have become reluctant to speak to police officers. Betts said that he encourages officers under his command to be friendly with residents and try not to jump to conclusions based on, for example, how young men dress.

“I think they’re getting it,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful the department is going in the right direction.

“We’re going in a different direction, the messaging is pretty clear,” he said. “We got to do it and we got to do it right.”

One major concern for residents that spoke at the meeting was that the CPD ranks don’t reflect the city demographics. Taliaferro, a former police officer himself, agreed that a racial disparity in CPD does exist, but he added that he was hopeful that this, too, would start to change.

“As of last week, the African American community has been the number one community that applied for the position of police officers,” he said. “There have been more [black] applicants than any other race, followed by Hispanics.”

Taliaferro also said that he was encouraged by the actions of interim superintendent John Escalante.

“The interim superintendent is promoting quite a few minorities, so 50 percent of the command staff is minority, which is so different from what I experienced [on the force].”

The alderman said that having more black officers — and more diversity in general — would benefit CPD.

“We do need a more diverse department, and I do believe, with this test, we’ll have a more diverse department,” he said.

When asked whether police exams might put black applicants at a disadvantage, Taliaferro said that it’s not the case now. But he noted that when he was applying to get on the force that was very much an issue.

“When I was testing for the police department, many of us African Americans, they failed the psychological portion of the exam,” he said. “Statistically speaking, that’s why most African-Americans didn’t get the job.”

Taliaferro recalled how, when he applied, the test asked whether he loved his father. He didn’t answer the question and he was called in by a police psychologist to ask why not. He explained that he couldn’t answer, because his father left when he was still a toddler. He said, while he didn’t hate him, he couldn’t say he loved someone he never even knew.

The alderman encouraged residents to apply for the police force.

 “It’s a good job,” he said. “We need young men and young women in the police cars. We have some bad officers, we have some good officers and we need to add the good officers.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...

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