The West Side’s violence woes were recently explored by the New York Times in a Dec. 9 feature article, which focused on the 11th police district.
“Homicides citywide are up about 56 percent compared to last year and shootings are up about 49 percent, but just five of Chicago’s 22 police districts are driving the bulk of Chicago’s rise,” wrote Times correspondent Monica Davies. “All are on the South or West Sides.
“In the 11th, shootings are up by 78 percent compared to a year ago, and homicides are up 89 percent. So far in 2016, 91 people have been killed in this district, where only about 74,000 people live. That is more homicides than in all of last year in entire cities, such as Seattle (population 684,000), Omaha (444,000) and Buffalo (258,000).”
A month earlier, the man responsible for keeping a lid on the 11th District’s cauldron of gun violence, Commander Kevin Johnson, joined his 15th District counterpart, Commander Dwayne Betts, at a community meeting hosted by Ald. Jason Ervin (28th). And both department leaders came to frank conclusions — 2016 has been a difficult year.
The commanders touched on the growing violence in their districts, as well as the fallout from the controversies over interactions between civilians and the police. The commanders said that, while there have been problems, they ultimately believe that working together with the community would slowly but surely turn the tide.
“I think you’d agree with me that 206 was a rough year. I don’t want to see another 2016,” Betts said, before adding that he and Johnson have been working with other commanders to try to address causes of the increasing violence.
“We’re spearheading efforts to see what’s going on,” Betts said. “It’s troubling to both of us and it’s tearful to see kids getting shot.”
Johnson added that any solutions would need input and participation from the community.
“We have to work together to find solutions to those problems,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers to violence, but I know one thing — it’s unacceptable.”
The extent of the problem, Betts said, was staggering. He recalled how, recently, he and his officers stormed a building and wound up apprehending two people who had drugs and illegal guns on them before they even reached the apartment they meant to enter.
Betts also lamented the fact that, as he saw it, it’s too easy for many criminals to get out of jail. He gave an example of a criminal who was arrested in January, went to trial in April, began his sentence in June and was released on probation in August. That, Betts said, felt like a slap in the face.
The commander touted some successes, including going after a building owner who tolerates drug-dealing on his property, and how, last month, the entire district pulled their resources to saturate one crime-ridden area.
“We can’t do the whole district; it doesn’t work,” Betts said. “How do you get a big elephant? One bite at a time. Were’ looking at where we can take the best bites.”
Johnson said that what police and community need to work on is helping young people find alternatives to dealing drugs.
“Some of those young men don’t have opportunities,” he said. “Some of those young men and women feel like, why do they have to work when then can [deal drugs]?”
Both commanders also talked about the controversies in the wake of the release of the tape of the shooting of Laquan McDonald and other police shootings that have happened since then.
“We took some hard knocks and [had] rough spots in the beginning of the year,” Betts said. “We had to change a lot of things.”
“The police department is changing,” said Johnson. “We had some tragic incidents, but] out of tragedy, we have the progress.”
Betts said that, after some initial reluctance, police officers are starting to embrace body cameras, but he juxtaposed that sign of progress with what he said was an indication of how complicated policing has gotten since the McDonald controversy.
Betts also said that since CPD and the ACLU agreed to change the way the police handles street stops, some of tactics that the officers once used are now off the table. The commander said the changes complicated the officers’ efforts to catch criminals.
“There are some things we can’t do that we used to do,” he said. “But that doesn’t stop me from doing what I can do.”
For example, Betts said, officers can’t simply search people on a hunch; they have to have a good reason to believe a person might be carrying guns or drugs. The fact that the officers now have to write longer reports detailing each stop slows them down, he said.
“It makes life more challenging, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do [our jobs],” Betts said.
He said that many of the changes over the past year were positive. For example, Betts felt that the crisis intervention training, which will teach officers skills they need to deal with individuals with mental health issues, will be good for everyone.
He also said he was pleased with the efforts to provide people who want to leave gangs behind with resources they need. While only about a fourth of those offered the resources actually follow through on them, Betts said, he still counts the effort as a victory.
“Out of the 20 guys who showed up on the original date, nine did a follow-up and five bit the apple,” he said. “And I’ll take those five.”
Johnson emphasized that, ultimately, the police want to serve the community, but that they must be accountable and responsive to the community’s needs.
“We are not an occupying army,” he said. “We have to serve the will and purpose of the community.”
Johnson said that the issues between the police and the community won’t be resolved overnight, which is why it is important to keep working on those issues until they’re resolved.
We need to talk and we need to communicate,” he said. “We need to keep working. We have to keep going at it.”
Ervin asked the two commanders what the residents could do to help them. Johnson said that crime reporting is important, as is working with CAPS officers. Betts encouraged residents to be positive role models for the youths.