Former Austin rookie cop takes over as 15th District commander

Going back to where she started

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Barbara West's career with the Chicago Police Department spans nearly 18 years.

She rose through the ranks, working in internal affairs, community policing and human resources before being promoted to 15th District police commander in March.

But West says she owes her career in law enforcement to TV shows like Charlie's Angels. She was also inspired by the 1974 show Get Christie Love! a show about a black female detective whose catchphrase was "You're under arrest, Sugar!"

"She was my role model back in the day," said West, a Whitney Young High School graduate. "She was the first female black police private detective that I ever seen on TV."

West followed her passion forgoing a career as a lawyer. She opted, instead, to enter the police academy in 1994 after graduating Illinois State University with a degree in political science and economics. West worked as a beat officer in several districts, and eventually made detective, a job that she quipped wasn't anything like TV.

"Solving crime is more methodical than what they had on TV," said West, a married mother of an adult son. "It is slower pace. ... It's nothing like the TV program that is made for Hollywood."

West career has come full circle. She began her career with the department as a rookie cop, patrolling Beat 1523 in Austin's 15th Police District. Sixteen years later, West now heads that district.

"The first place you work as an officer is always special. I see it as an honor to come back and serve as the commander in the place I started," she said.

While West is glad to be back in her old stomping ground, her promotion as 15th District police commander is part of the many changes Superintendent Garry McCarthy made in March to address districts with high crime rates. West was among five new commanders promoted by McCarthy. She replaces Commander Walter Green, who is commander of Area South.

West's goal for the district is to reduce crime and make Austin safer. But she does admit there are challenges. The district has seen an 80-percent increase in homicides compared to the same period last year. From January through May 20, the district experienced nine homicides compared to five in 2011, according to police records.

Homicides are up citywide. Through May 20, there have been 192 homicides in Chicago, a 52-percent increase compared to the same time period. In 2011, from January to May 20, there were 126 homicides.

"Crime is a concern for the whole city, not just the 15th District," West said. To that end, McCarthy has rolled out an arsenal of initiatives to help districts better address crime. He has put more beat cops on the streets in high crime areas, including Austin, and has implemented "Compstat," a data-driven approach to crime fighting.

Compstat analyzes crime statistics at the district level to enable commanders to best put resources where they're needed. The goal is to make commanders and district-level personnel accountable in fighting crime.

The program points out trends, West explained, adding that the statistics help "develop strategies to address those actual incidents, and see if you have any patterns that you can get a head of."

One tool helpful to West is the superintendent's gang violence reduction strategy. West wants to get ahead of violent activity by developing strategies and initiatives to prevent gang violence. Under the program, the goal is to prevent initial shootings and retaliatory shootings by gathering intelligence on gangs, their members and their activities.

By having that "intel," districts can increase patrols and resources in certain areas to prevent gang violence, which stems from inner-gang conflicts or beefs over drug trade territory, West said.

"It's a preventative measure," she said. "Sometimes we are so used to being on the reactive side that we don't get into developing strategies to be preventive. But this is more of a preventative measure than reacting to the crime."

While the department has rolled out several initiatives to reduce crime, West said her biggest asset is community involvement. When residents, faith- and community-based organizations partner with police, that impacts crime, she said. One key to achieving partnerships is establishing more block clubs.

"The community plays a big role in crime prevention," she said. "They are our eyes and ears when we are not there. They assist us in crime prevention."

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