Police officers, politicians and other city officials came to Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd., on Aug. 23 to share what they’re doing to reduce crime and violence in the city and take resident questions.  

The Community and Police Townhall, which residents could attend in person or via Zoom, was billed as a way to bring the police and the community together. But aside from questions about Shotspotter gunfire tracking technology and the police department’s minority hiring policies, the town hall largely avoided contentious topics, with much of the discussion focusing on familiar crime issues. 

Throughout the meeting, the officials emphasized that policing alone wouldn’t reduce crime. Instead, they argued, crime reduction requires social services, mental health support and community involvement. 

Police Superintendent David Brown acknowledged “two summers of extreme gun violence,” but he said that the police have been recovering more illegal guns than ever and that the department was “on pace to recover 1,000” illegal guns. 

He also touted over 895 carjacking arrests, adding that “the majority of carjacking offenders have been really young people, juveniles, as young as 10 to 12 year sold,” which points to a much larger crisis. 

Brown said that CPD engages with you through sports and arts programming, which the pandemic has hampered. He said that the 2022 city budget will include more funding for those programs.

Deputy Chief Ernest Cato and Brown also touched on the department’s Custom Notification Program, where police officers and social workers visit households where people are judged to be likely to either commit crime or be a victim of crime. 

“Often, when we talk about violence and crime, we often get outside the purview of the police,” Brown said. 

Deborah Witzburg, the city’s deputy inspector general for public safety, said a recent report by her office found that while Blacks accounted for 37% of police force applicants, only 18% made it through the testing process.

The report also found that there are three stages where Black candidates tend to get dropped: the written exam, the first physical test and the background check. 

Witzburg, who is responsible for overseeing the city’s policing bodies, said that her office believes that failing the first physical test should not be grounds for eliminating a candidate from the pool of prospective officers. She said her office also recommended that the city share more information about what the background check entails so that the candidates have a better idea of what to expect.

Norman Kerr, the head of the Mayor’s Office of Violence Reduction, said that his office wants to address generational trauma, as well as provide more support for older residents. The office funds small nonprofits and works with city departments and agencies on anti-violence and other public safety initiatives. 

According to an analysis by the Office of the Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety, the police department’s own data “does not support a conclusion that ShotSpotter is an effective tool in developing evidence of gun-related crime.” 

Addressing questions he received from the audience about ShotSpotter’s effectiveness as a gunshot tracking system, Brown said he was confident in the technology. 

“ShotSpotter has notified us on where the shots were being fired from,” Brown said. “We have retrieved gun casings. We have seen victims at the scene where ShotSpotter [indicated there were shots], and we’ve made arrests at the locations where ShotSpotter has gone off.”

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes portions of Austin and West Humboldt Park, asked what CPD was doing to protect young people returning to school in person. 

Cato and Brown said that, in addition to the Safe Passages program and school resource officers, they are working with principals to provide support for teens who are experiencing issues such as homelessness. They are also working with anti-violence groups to reduce gang conflicts. 

When asked about how the police would address open-air drug markets, Brown said that it was more of a West Side phenomenon. On the South Side, drug sales tend to take place indoors. The top cop said that his department wants to provide addiction services and support services for people engaged in drug sales, but they would also do enforcement. 

Since drug sales are driven by demand from buyers who come from outside of the community, the department also wants to cut the demand off.

“If you’re coming to the West Side to buy drugs, we’re going to tow your car,” Brown said, earning]applause from the majority of the attendees. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

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...