During a recent interview, West Side native Ernest Cato III, the new 15th District commander, laid out some of the plans he has for improving public safety in the area.
In October, city officials announced that Cato had replaced former commander Dwayne Betts, who was promoted to deputy chief of the department’s Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) program.
Betts had been at the helm since 2015, when he succeeded former commander Barbara West after she was reassigned to lead the 11th District.
Cato had served the Austin district for more than a year as a tactical lieutenant before his promotion. He said that he was “fortunate” to be mentored by Betts.
Cato, a 27-year CPD veteran who grew up on the 4300 block of W. Monroe St., has served in a range of capacities in his route to becoming a commander. He said his career began on the city’s South Side, within the 21st District, where he was a tactical officer for roughly six years before moving on to become a supervisor of investigations within the City of Chicago’s Inspector General’s Office .
Cato has served as a detective assigned to cases involving sex crimes against children and child abuse; a homicide detective; a sergeant with a tactical team; and was also responsible for “helping put together the Gang Violence Reduction Strategy for bureau patrol,” he said.
When he arrived in the Austin district, he made an effort to walk the blocks and meet new people in the community where he grew up. Both of Cato’s parents are West Side natives as well.
“[With] my experiences growing up on the West Side of Chicago, I have an understanding of what a lot of the young men and young women are feeling when they encounter police,” Cato said.
The new commander said that he plans to address the area’s violence through a strategy involving community support. He said it’s best to take a “block-by-block” approach while working with community organizations to devise plans on how to address violence and loitering that’s affecting businesses.
“Today, we’re building more of a bridge with the community and our relationships at this particular time are getting stronger where the police is depending on the community and the community is depending on the police,” said Cato.
The new commander said that since he started his tenure atop the 15th District, shootings and homicides have been down. He said homicides are down by 7.4 percent and shootings are down by 21.3 percent from last year.
Cato is the 15th District’s third commander in five years. Cato came with the strong endorsement of his former boss, Betts, who said that Cato “is going to new a phenomenal job” during a community meeting hosted by Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) in November.
During that meeting, Cato emphasized community-centered aspects of public safety, such as block clubs and active residents who could supplement police patrol. Cato said that he hopes that more block clubs form in Austin. He also emphasized the importance of economic opportunity in keeping the public safe.
“We have to provide opportunities, but we also have to provide discipline,” Cato said, before adding that trust between police and citizens needs to be rebuilt — with some of the burden of repairing that relationship falling on citizens.
“Sometimes, you gotta think [about] what that office has been through,” he said, “why does he look so stressed?”
Cato used the analogy of tuna fishing to illustrate his point, explaining that when fishing for tuna, fishermen use large nets that sometimes catch dolphins.
“It’s not our intent to catch a dolphin, but sometimes it will happen,” he said. “And we have to say, ‘I’m sorry.'”
Igor Studenkov contributed to this report.