15th District Police Council candidates (from left) Elena X. Thompson, Arewa Karen Winters, Deondre Rutues, Carmelita P. Earls and Constance Melton shared their views on policing at a forum on Feb. 2, 2023. | Francia Garcia Hernandez/AustinTalks

Police misconduct, random stops and improved response times are among the top issues candidates for the 15th District Police Council promise to address on the West Side.

Across the board, candidates speaking at a non-partisan community forum Sat., Feb. 4, pushed for accountability, trust and better relationships with the community.

“What’s happening oftentimes is that we don’t get the service that some folks in other communities may have,” Arewa Karen Winters told several dozens of West Side residents who attended the forum held at Hope Community Church.

Five of the seven candidates running for the 15th District Council participated. Carmelita P. Earls, Constance Melton, Deondre Rutues, Elena X. Thompson and Winters, shared their background and experience with police.

Thompson, a mom of seven, is an advocate for families impacted by the child welfare system and a criminal justice activist, working to assist residents of Humboldt Park and Austin.

Winters became a police reform activist after the killing of her 16-year-old great-nephew by Chicago Police in 2016, as reported by AustinTalks and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is an advocate for a consent decree covering the Chicago Police Department, and, as reported by Block Club Chicago, was part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Use of Force Working Group.

Rutues is a community organizer with experience implementing community-based policing. He helped launch the Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative and leads its outreach efforts in the 11th, 15th and 25th districts, according to Block Club Chicago.

Earls, a retired Chicago Fire Department Chief who ran for the 28th Ward aldermanic seat in 2011, said she wants to use her skills and knowledge of careers in public service to bring the voice of the community to the table.

Melton, is an outreach coordinator, mom of two and longtime Austin resident. She participates in the 15th Police District’s monthly faith-based meetings and programs for youth and other community members.

Two candidates – Oddis Johnson and Darius Newsome – could not attend, organizers said.

When asked what they consider to be the missing link between police and community, Winters said it “is the community’s ability to have a voice.” She said police officers “should be able to be critical thinkers and have a sense of discernment” when making quick decisions, pointing to the shooting death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago Police officer.

“If that officer had just waited a moment and seen that he had ditched that gun, he’d still be here with us today,” she said.

Candidates were asked how they would advocate for programs and interventions that reduce police presence. Rutues, Earls, Melton and Thompson said residents need to be connected with the resources they need, including mental health and support services. Winters said she would like to see more violence prevention programs, including mentorship between police officers and at-risk youth.

All candidates agreed the relationships between police officers and community members need to improve. Yet audience members asked how they propose to develop relationships if police personnel frequently changes.

Another audience member asked how members will ensure district councils affect change rather than “becoming window-dressing for community involvement.” The candidates agreed their role is to collaborate to get information from the community and raise their concerns with police department officials.

Rutues stressed the goal of district councils is to get community input and ensure the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability uses that information to guide their work. Yet, he said he “wants to make it clear that the district council has very limited power.”

Voters in each of the city’s 22 police districts will select three members per council who will serve four-year terms. Some of the council member’s key responsibilities will include nominating members of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, as “anyone who serves on the commission must first have the support of elected District Council members,” according to the city of Chicago.