While interviewees disagreed on whether they wanted more or less police presence in the neighborhood, most wanted officers to foster healthier interactions with residents. Longtime Austin neighbors noted that police-community relations had deteriorated significantly in the past few decades.

“I remember when we had beat cops that were always around and engaged with the community,” said Malcolm Braswell, a North Austin resident and owner of M & J’s Barbershop, 6945 W. North Ave. “They knew who was related to who. When there was an issue, they knew who to talk to. It’s just not the same anymore.”

Braswell said he attends the 25th District CAPS meetings with some frequency, but turnout is regularly low and the seats are filled with the same faces each meeting. He said that residents “need to have a vested interest in what’s going on in the community. We have the power to look out for each other and police our own neighborhoods.”

Austin is the largest community area in Chicago. It includes three wards and is separated into three police districts (11th, 15th and 25th). While Austin’s issues are often discussed monolithically, residents’ experiences are often dictated by where they live and who they know.

Stephen Vasko is a longtime resident of Galewood, in the northwest corner of Austin. He said although he has seen an uptick in crime in the area over the past 10 years, it is nothing like what he hears about the rest of the ward. He also lamented the absence of beat cops. “Now, if I see a problem when traveling through the 29th [Ward], I see a swarm of police cars at one time. If I’m just driving by, I might not see a police car at all,” he said.

According to a 2018 ProPublica Illinois report, 28th Ward residents have amassed over $64 million in total debt from tickets dating back to 1996 — the second highest in the city, after only the downtown 42nd Ward — contributing to an already long history of mistrust of the police. 

Larry Taylor Hill was among several residents interviewed who had strong feelings about the effects that heavy ticketing has had on communities. “Tickets and fines are just a thing to absorb money from poor people, fill the court system and put money in the city treasury. Red light cameras, parking tickets are unfair and unbalanced and used against black neighborhoods,” he said. “How do you call that justice? That’s just taking advantage of people.”

Other residents simply feel like their needs are not being prioritized. Lakendra Cannon, 29, of the 28th Ward, said, “On the block I live on, we have had several issues where we called the police multiple times. Either they came really slow or were rude to us on the phone, like they are tired of receiving calls.”

This year’s municipal elections come at an especially delicate time, as the shaky relationship between the Chicago Police Department and communities of color has come under heavy public scrutiny, with scandals and mass protests making national headlines. Currently, one of the most polarizing issues in the city is the planned construction of a new, $95 million police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park, in the 37th Ward. Austin residents were split on the topic. Samantha Oshin, a 36-year-old daycare owner, said, “I think the police academy is a good thing.” She said she wants a bigger police presence near spaces frequented by children.

Others, such as Briana Shields, 26, believe a new academy would not address the roots of crime. “It is not creating any type of benefit toward the lack of resources that we have in the community,” she said. 

Residents like Latoya Daniels, 37, have been actively pushing police to rebuild community ties. She regularly attends the 15th District Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (community policing) meetings and believes community input is vital to success. “We’re very vocal and try to get ahead of everything. There was a drug operation that was trying to start up on our block and we mobilized really quickly to get that shut down early. I think increased community involvement has helped.”

Daniels praised the 15th District for its recent efforts. She participates in 100 Blocks, 100 Churches, a weekly event organized by the CAPS office where local churches and groups gather to pray and build relationships with community members. She said, “I was scared when we first started that I was going to run into the ‘bad guys’…the gang bangers and drug dealers. But when we went out together, I found they [were] the most approachable individuals to talk to.” 

West Side police officers still have a long way to go to regain trust, especially among younger residents. Laurentino Howard, 26, said heavy police presence makes him feel more unsafe, and he feels that residents are being targeted. “Some people won’t even drive if they don’t have to because they are looking out for the police and making sure they’re not in their way,” he said.

Howard feels that police should start by communicating with residents more, and making efforts to stop automatically criminalizing people. As of now, he said, “There’s a certain way you just have to maneuver in Chicago as a resident of the Austin community. It’s a scary thing.”

Candidate Responses 

Mayoral Candidates

Toni Preckwinkle: Support the federal consent decree and wants to put a hold on West Side police academy to re-examine the process. More crisis prevention and de-escalation training for officers. City “needs to address the lack of police sergeants” and how to make detectives more effective: “If we had a more diverse detective corps, we would get more community cooperation.”

Susan Mendoza: Add “at least 100 new detectives” to improve case closure rate. More de-escalation and crisis-intervention training for police, particularly in mental illness cases. Support new police and fire training academy; include “space for local nonprofits and social service organizations.” Develop early warning system to identify at-risk police officers before they graduate from the academy and intervene with training or discipline.

Willie Wilson*: Support the federal consent decree. Oppose the new police and fire training facility. “Divide the city into four separate police districts and form community-based citizen committees in each district to choose the best police leader for the district.” Against hiring more detectives. Hire more social workers to respond to police calls. 

La Shawn K. Ford: Biggest issue is “getting the police department respected by the community.” Is against police academy, would rather use money to build a West Side trade school. Push for critical race theory training for police to address racism in the department. 

Amara Enyia*: Push for change in ticketing/fine policies and “ban the boot.” Opposes police academy. Expand restorative justice models in communities and schools. Support sustainable funding for block clubs, wants stricter requirements for gun ownership. Support creation of Civilian Police Accountability Council.

Gery Chico: Hire 300 more detectives and double the number of forensic experts. Support more community policing and programs like READI and CRED. Support gun control to decrease violent crime. Appoint a cabinet-level director of public safety and create a Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention and Reduction.

Bill Daley: Support federal consent decree. Advocated for community re-engaging with police department, strengthening CAPS program and creating a walking beat. Support increased community surveillance and installation of security cameras on more neighborhood blocks.

Paul Vallas: Restore neighborhood beat cops. Fill police vacancies, increase detective divisions and block clubs. Wants to place a police officer in every school, and 600 additional police officers “ready to be dispatched” when kids are not in school. Supports consent decree. 

28th Ward Candidates 

Jason Ervin: Supports community policing and increasing officer interactions through basketball, football programs. Advocated for the consent decree.  

Jasmine Jackson: Supports Civilian Police Accountability Council and consent decree. Hire more officers and foster more personal relations with community members.

Miguel Bautista: Supports Civilian Police Accountability Council and wants to address police misconduct and brutality. Build relationships between police and fire departments and community by planting gardens in empty lots.

Justina Winfrey: Expunge marijuana-related charges and ensure community policing. Have fewer officers deployed in wards. Give cultural training to police. Against police academy. 

Beverly Miles: Wants better police training and wants officers to mirror population of the community. Supports more walking beats. Against police academy.

29th Ward Candidates 

Chris Taliaferro: Use “creative strategies” to get community to work with officers again. Integrate residents into 911 system to alert residents when and where a crime is occurring in the ward. Create “quadrant program” to concentrate police resources on specific areas. New 25th Ward initiative to specifically hire police to “knock on doors” and not respond to calls.

Zerlina Smith: Move CAPS meetings to neighborhood blocks or more public spaces. Hire more officers from the community. Expand district-wide social initiatives, such as father-daughter dances and Little League softball teams. 100 Blocks, 100 Churches program should be a model for building relationships with the community. 

Dwayne Truss: Against police academy, wants equitable investing in youth. Give mental health intervention training for officers. Provide counseling services to victims of police misconduct. Testified in support of consent decree.

37th Ward Candidates 

Emma Mitts*: Hire more police officers. Supports new police and fire training facility in 37th Ward, says it is “a major part” of her crime-reduction strategy. Have police address “nuisance businesses, current crime hotspots and drug locations.” Sponsored measures like the Illegal Party Bus ordinance and the Chronic Illegal Activity ordinance. Supports the federal consent decree.

Deondre Rutues: Is “not against” the police and fire training facility being built, but is opposed to it being built in the 37th Ward. Supports the federal consent decree and the Civilian Police Accountability Council.

Tara Stamps: Against the police and fire training facility. Supports citizen oversight of the police and community policing. Wants tougher accountability measures for officers who engage in gross misconduct. Vowed to “not be an automatic yes vote on police misconduct settlements.” Supports more diversity, says officers should reflect the population of the community.

* Indicates candidate did not respond to requests for interview and responses are pulled from public comments.

This report was produced in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab. www.citybureau.org