Chicago’s new top cop wasn’t on the job for a week before he met controversy related to what some residents and activists believe is the police department’s racially disparate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Chicago City Council’s Committee on Public Safety confirmed Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown as the city’s newest police superintendent at a meeting on April 20. Brown officially started on April 22.    

Within a day, Brown apologized to a group of aldermen representing parts of the North and Northwest Sides for his decision to deploy police officers from police districts in those areas to the West Side’s 11th District to work on gun crimes and disperse crowds — a move that has drawn criticism from activists and West Side residents concerned that the police department has been disproportionately enforcing COVID-19 crackdowns across the city. 

“He came out and apologized immediately and said, ‘I’m sorry that I blindsided you guys with this,’ ” Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He apologized that he had no warning for us.” 

Napolitano’s district is home to “scores of police officers, firefighters and other city employees,” the Sun-Times reported. 

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that three West Side districts — the 11th District, 15th District, and the 10th District — have seen the largest number of police dispersals. 

Out of the 930 incidents of “coronavirus loitering” reported in the early weeks of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-home order, between late March and early April, about 700 happened on the West Side, the Tribune reported. Five hundred of those incidents happened in the 11th District while the 10th and 15th districts each reported 100 incidents. 

Chicago Police spokesperson Luis Agostini told the Tribune that “dispersal orders have proven to serve as an effective enforcement tool to ensure compliance with the [public health order], without having to resort to citations or arrests unless absolutely necessary.”

During a teleconference held April 9 and organized by Communities United and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), two social justice advocacy organizations, Degalo Moore, of Austin, said that a week earlier, an officer threatened him and his friend. 

“Last Tuesday, I was going to my friend’s house, because I haven’t seen him in a while and I was going to the store,” Moore said. “When I came outside, police was harassing us, saying, ‘Y’all need to get in the house, you all need to be inside, and if you aren’t in house by 5:00 p.m., you’d be arrested.'”  

Myaia Coleman, of North Lawndale, said her brother had a similar experience.

“When it comes to the police and COVID-19, I believe a lot of police officers are abusing their powers,” said Coleman. “They’re looking at us like walking disease and I think that’s unfair.” 

Promises of more outreach

During the April 20 public safety committee meeting, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Supt. Brown said that he would conduct more community outreach and improve relations between the police and the community.  

A Dallas native, Brown joined the city’s police department in 1983. When he became police chief in 2010, he pushed to improve the relationships between police and residents, especially those in predominantly minority communities. Brown encouraged officers to use less force and supported the use of body cameras to improve transparency. 

According to a 2016 report by the New York Times, Brown’s tenure was still marked by complaints from black residents of racial profiling. Brown garnered national attention on July 7, 2016, when five Dallas Police officers were fatally shot and nine injured by a lone gunman. Brown retired in October of that year. 

As part of the confirmation process, superintendent candidates have to clear the Committee on Public Safety, which is chaired by Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police officer. During the April 20 committee meeting, Taliaferro asked Brown what he would do differently about the fact that the department still lags in recruiting African-American officers.  

Brown replied that his experience in Dallas taught him that the only way to improve minority hiring was having recruiters who specialize in minority hiring. 

“I think you need people selected to understand these groups, what attracts them and having that face time with people, particularity in college and university settings,” he said. “I was surprised you didn’t have recruiting teams here targeting your specific demographics.”

Ald. Michael Scott (24th) asked what Brown could do to improve safety and make people living in neighborhoods like North Lawndale feel safe. Brown responded that the statistics don’t mean much if people don’t feel safe and that the key is positive engagement with residents and businesses. 

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said that he would be working with Brown to reduce loitering and prostitution, saying that people should feel as comfortable in Garfield Park as they do in Lincoln Park. Brown said that he believed that there was a way to address those issues without hurting people’s constitutional rights and that it requires creativity and a willingness to try different approaches. 

South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) asked how Brown thought civilian oversight would benefit police. Brown responded that he believes that “local democracy and debate” makes a city strong, but he declined to give his position on what a civilian oversight council should look like.

“I have a long track record of calling it like I see it and I won’t hesitate to follow the same approach in the City of Chicago,” Brown said. “There must be a real partnership with the community. And civilian oversight can serve as a mechanism to build [that partnership]. So I’m a full supporter of civilian oversight and I’ll be a full supporter of what the mayor and the City Council negotiate.”

Sawyer also asked how he would approach negotiating the new contract with the Fraternity Order of Police. 

“I’m going to be a strong advocate for cooler heads prevailing in the way we negotiate on both sides,” Brown said. 

Brown also touted a program that kept juveniles accused of nonviolent crimes from going to jail by having them participate in some form of mental health treatment and/or counseling programs. 

“The more you can get our young people back on the right path, the better and safer you are,” he said. “At the same time, we need to accept the small subset of young people who are violent and would hurt us, and they need to be incarcerated.”

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...