During forum, West Side residents call to put community back in policing

The 15th District held the forum to gather feedback for its District Strategic Plan.

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

The fallout from the killing of George Floyd has brought renewed calls to shift from using police enforcement to address crime and violence, with many activists even calling for abolishing the police altogether. 

But more enforcement was exactly what many Austin residents called for at a recent virtual forum organized by the 15th District. The forum, held Oct. 6, is part of a series of district-level events that are being held throughout Chicago in October and November in order to give residents a chance to talk about what their local police should focus on and how they would like to see the police interact with the community. 

The urging for more enforcement did get some pushback, with other residents and some police officers calling for more of a restorative approach. There was a broad consensus among the roughly 76 attendees, around 60 of whom were residents, that what CPD is doing isn't working, and that it would benefit everyone if officers are involved in the community outside the context of responding to calls. 

15th District will now take that feedback and use it to craft the District Strategic Plan. It will hold another online meeting on Nov. 10, at 6 p.m., to give residents a chance to review the plan before it's finalized. 

In November, the 15th District joined the Neighborhood Policing Initiative, which was piloted in the neighboring 25th District. The project puts more emphasis on having officers interact with the community in a positive context, giving residents a say in policing and creating District Coordination Officers, who are specifically responsible for working with residents to resolve issues. 

The Oct. 6 community forum followed the format CPD has adopted for most outreach events. Attendees were broken up into small groups made up of police officers and residents and everybody was encouraged to share as much as they were comfortable with and suggest ideas. 

Toward the end, representatives of each group presented the highlights of their respective discussions.

In the room Austin Weekly News was sorted in, the conversation was dominated by two residents who've been active in their respective block clubs — Diana Graham and La Toya Fox. Both of them urged the officers to do more about quality of life issues, such as loud music, people obstructing traffic, overflowing trash bins and neglected buildings. 

"These are quality of life, issues, but when you call 911, you're told immediately that those issues are not prioritized," Fox added. "And I think [that response] contributes a lot to where we are mentally on some things. I mean, it affects your state of mind when you live around filth."

Fox wants police officers to ticket people who commit these sorts of offenses.

"There have to be consequences for that particular behavior," Fox said. "If you want  to see people show respect for that particular block, start hitting people with those tickets."

Fareem Willis, a restorative justice coordinator, was among those who argued that ticketing wouldn't actually help; rather, talking to people and addressing their needs would be more productive. 

"No one should be hungry, no one should be without key services," he said. "I think if we take a more progressive approach to regain more of an idea of the community, come out, introduce ourselves to people, find out who needs what."

Donovan Robinson, a restorative justice coordinator at Michele Clark High School and a former police officer echoed that argument. 

"I think we need to have a conversation in front of everyone and listen to each side, and maybe they start to listen to the community, and respect the community," he said.

If there was one thing the participants agreed on, it was that the 15th district police officers should have more positive interactions with residents. 

Aileen Bhandari, a Cook County assistant state's attorney who works with the office's community justice centers program, noted that, whether a person was a victim of a crime or was accused of a crime, their first experience with the police is most likely to be negative, because, either way, the person is going to be distressed. 

"The first time you meet an officer, maybe it shouldn't be when you're robbed," Bhandari siad. "Growing up, I remember there was a beat officer [in my community]. You looked at the police differently when you knew that officer by first name."

Phalese Binion, of the Westside Ministers Coalition, suggested doing more to work with the youth, while another participant suggested having officers walk around and pass out information about programs, services and other "things that make the quality of life better," so that residents "don't see them as just enforcers."

Other groups offered similar suggestions, as well as suggesting more community events, having officers get more cultural sensitivity training, hiring more Black officers, doing more outreach with youth and seniors, and having officers provide more support for victims of domestic violence. 

To register for the Nov. 15 meeting, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/122897438547.

Email: igorst3@hotmail.com

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