ReCaps Developing Story

CCMP in Chicago: Austin Drug House Shut Down Program.

The Situation on the far West Side as of August, 1997:

Austin Residents Vow to Shut-Down Ten Drug Houses by Thanksgiving

For years they stood by as drug dealers yelled "Rock!" and "Blow!" at addicts' cars cruising down their streets.

This summer they stood up and yelled back.

In August, at a day-long Community Policing Convention sponsored by 20 local groups, 200 residents from the Austin neighborhood on Chicago's far West Side rose and shouted their approval of a motion to shut down ten drug houses by Thanksgiving in the 15th (Austin) Police District.

This ambitious goal is intended to reinforce Austin's hard-pressed CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) program. It's a core concept of ReCAPS, a results-oriented, youth-centered, media-enhanced brand of community policing.

And it may be taking hold. "The Convention was great. I was there all day. And the right people were there," said a 20-year Austin resident, activist, and mother of seven who has already targeted a drug house in her beat for closure. "Once the dealers told my kids they were going to bomb our house. But I'm not afraid! And I know we can win this battle!"

Another start-to-finish convention participant was 15th (Austin) Police District Commander John Richardson, who voiced frustration with rampant drug dealing that has continued even since he took command after the 1996 "Broken Star" arrests of seven 15th District tactical squad officers.

"Let's face it, we haven't turned the corner on drugs in Austin," Richardson said. "Doing so will require unprecedented cooperation between citizens of all ages and police. And that's what ReCAPS is all about."

After the convention, ReCAPS activists began preparing a David Letterman-style Top Ten List of drug houses and street dealing areas targeted for closure. Based on hundreds of citizen tips, the list will appear in The Austin Voice, an award-winning community paper that for years has waged its own outspoken war on drugs and police misconduct on the West Side.

In November, ReCAPS intervention teams will knock on doors at the targeted houses. "Up front, we'll tell dealers they have until Thanksgiving to stop dealing," says a team leader who prefers anonymity. "At first, they may laugh. But they won't when they see copies of The Austin Voice showing how miserable life will be for them if they deal anywhere in the 15th District."

"On the front page," he says, "they'll see the Top Ten list, a photo of their location, and the ReCAPS shut-down program of tax searches, property searches, citizen vigils, stepped-up police patrols, nuisance abatement measures, and court advocacy."

"The message to dealers will be simple: 'The entire community is putting you out of business, not just a few police.'"

"At the same time, we'll talk man-to-man with dealers," he says. "After all, they're our children. And most hate dealing. We'll offer to help them build a new life -- if they supply the effort."

At the August convention, Commander Richardson pledged to meet monthly with Austin youth on any and all matters of concern to them, including police harassment, brutality, and false arrests.

No Chicago police district has ever matched extensive youth outreach with a district-wide, drug-house shut down. What are Austin ReCAPS' chances of success?

"The drug-house shut down goal is ambitious," says Commander Richardson, "but not unrealistic. If we stay focused on helping kids and closing down drug houses, and if we plan carefully and involve the community, Austin will have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving."

What's the key to involving the community? "It's the media," says Brad Cummings, Associate Editor of the Austin Voice. "The media have ample resources to inform and involve people. But guess what -- most media aren't using their resources this way."

"Take the case of CAPS," Cummings says. "In newspapers, radio and TV, CAPS is a series of picnics, parades, and public service announcements. The real story goes untold. And people fall asleep. Yet people want desperately to solve the problems that community policing can solve when the public is involved." So what to do?

"We decided to build our own media," Cummings continues, "a grassroots, problem-solving media that listens to people and makes citizens and police responsive and accountable to each other."

What exactly are the ReCAPS media? Influential WVON radio personality and ReCAPS convention moderator Clif Kelley identifies some. "They include the Austin Voice and an Austin ReCAPS internet home page. Perhaps you saw the 2-hour ReCAPS Convention Special on Cable Channel 19, Chicago Access Network. If not, look for ReCAPS on October 20 on The Tecora Rogers Show on Channel 19. And look for ReCAPS on Chicago Police Department CrimeWatch shows airing on cable channels 23 and 49. Finally, ReCAPS has a home on my WVON and WGCI-AM morning talk shows."

"And that's only the beginning," adds Kelley. "Last December, local and national media came running to Austin when the Broken Star scandal surfaced. Then they vanished. But they'll be back this November when ReCAPS starts shutting down drug houses. And ReCAPS is planning for TV minicams and helicopters to show Austin residents knocking on doors and conducting vigils."

"TV will send a new message to the kids," says veteran community policing activist Joyce Gardner. "In Austin," she says, "fifty drug houses are known to every kid on the block. The number of young people tied to gangs by choice or fear is frightening. For years, our kids have seen us cowering behind our doors. On TV news, they've seen gangbangers and bodybags. Now on TV they'll see us taking back our streets. So far as I'm concerned, the "rock and blow" song is over!"

Is it over for rock and blow in Austin? Stay tuned. The stakes are high. ReCAPS will test the ability of an entire community to address four crises -- drugs, youth alienation, citizen apathy, police misconduct -- at once. If passed in Austin, this test will mark the rebirth of a neighborhood that had been decimated by drugs. It will also point to the central role of media in empowering citizens -- ordinary people -- to tap into the hidden strengths that make such rebirths possible.

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