Q&A: Sgt. Brian Chaney-Austin

Sgt. Brian Chaney Austin has served as the supervisor of the Madison Police Department's Gang Unit since 2014. 

SAIYNA BASHIR -- The Capital Times

As a supervisor for the Madison Police Department’s gang unit, Sgt. Brian Chaney-Austin is not often surprised when he learns about individuals involved in gang activity.

37-year-old Chaney-Austin, who has been the unit’s supervisor since 2014, said many persons of interest and suspects who have gang affiliations have been on the unit's radar for years.

“They’ve had contacts since they were kids,” Chaney-Austin said.

MPD’s gang unit is housed in the Central District downtown and is comprised of five gang officers in addition to Chaney-Austin. They focus on building and maintaining relationships as a method of preventing violent behavior and then assist with the reintegration of formerly involved gang members into society. 

Chaney-Austin grew up in Chicago and said as a young person of color, he had a negative perception of the police. His uncle, a county deputy sheriff at the time, set an example of the good that law enforcement officials can do in their community.

“As a kid growing up in Chicago, particularly a kid of color, I had had run-ins with the police officers in Chicago and not all of them were quite positive, so I already had an impression of what I believed a police officer was,” Chaney-Austin said.

Hired in 2002, Chaney-Austin has held several positions in the department prior to his current position including patrol on the north side, downtown and specifically, State Street. He was also a member of the downtown Community Policing Team and a liaison officer in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood.

Working the downtown night shift, Chaney-Austin said the significant calls he received and the “vicarious trauma” he witnessed, took their toll.

“Seeing people react to tragedy and living through it and trying to be that support and that strong person while somebody else is going through a traumatic event and having that repeat itself over and over again can be pretty taxing,” Chaney-Austin said.

In April, Chaney-Austin and the gang unit were dealing with three connected homicides that spurred community leaders and alders to release recommendations for how to reduce gun violence among youth.

Wisconsin individuals can be barred from buying a gun if they have committed a felony, if they have been ordered not to possess a firearm under mental health laws, if they face a restraining order or if they have been convicted of a domestic offense. Chaney-Austin said he sees a lot of guns in Madison, but many are purchased legally.

“A lot of our gang members aren’t any of those ... so they can legally purchase a firearm,” Chaney-Austin said.

Many of the solutions to gang activity and gun violence are rooted in the community, Chaney-Austin said, and not necessarily the role of the police. He said there are many programs in Madison, but there needs to be more communication.

"Every kid is different so you have to take a different approach for every kid or every adult … so I don’t think that we can be so bold or ashamed to say if one program doesn’t work, then we’re done," Chaney-Austin said. "If we as taxpayers spend tens of thousands of dollars on a programming for a young person or an adult and it doesn’t work, we’re not going to throw away the key, we’re just going to give the key to somebody else and say ok now you try.”

What does the MPD gang unit do?

Our main mission is prevention. So we focus a lot of our energy, a lot of our time, on creating these relationships with these folks who are both juvenile and adult, who are prone to the lifestyle of gangs. And so we first want to identify those folks.

We have a lot of help in doing that in that we work with community partners, such as the schools, human resources, some of the nonprofits that do great work in the community and they give us hints and clues as to who we may want to reach out to.

If it is a gang issue, that is this person’s expertise in trying to identify what tools can we use or what resources can be presented to them or the family of the person to help them stray away from that lifestyle.

Who is getting involved with gang activity?

A lot of our recruiting is both happening in our middle schools and even a little bit in our elementary schools. But it’s happening in our communities as well. Especially a lot of our challenged neighborhoods.

And when we see people, especially young persons who, say for example, they're tremendous students, they’re doing exceptionally well, but for some reason when they go into the neighborhood is when they’re starting to have these negative contacts with police. Or the mentor in the community is starting to notice some behavior changes, we get involved and we try to do our own assessment of that and we get other experts involved like human services who has their entire group of gang workers that work for the neighborhood intervention program.

Where our role gets a little tricky is as much as we try to do prevention work, we’re still police officers. We will have an obligation to hold people accountable for the crimes they do commit.

Do you know the people involved in these crimes?

Anytime that there's gun violence … we are more often than not going to know the people involved. We’re going to know potentially some of the persons of interest are, the suspects side of it and we’re going to know who the victims are.

Have you been surprised by some of the names that have been released?

No. Not in that their names are not new to us. The behavior, albeit violent and something that we try to prevent, isn’t as shocking for us as say a random person we just met. Some of the names who have been involved have been persons we’ve been trying to help for years, since before I was in this unit, since before my officers were involved in the unit. They’ve had contacts since they were kids.

In fact probably the most impactful is when you go to some of these command posts and you have very veteran and senior detectives who are working these homicides … and you hear things like, ‘I remember him or her when they were in fifth grade and I first responded to their house and I was hoping it was never going to happen, but it’s sad to say I’m not surprised that this person ended this way.’

How often does the situation you just described happen?

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Very often. Every command post that I’ve been a part of … I've overheard an interaction or someone has engaged me in conversation about the victim or the suspect and they had some early interaction with them years before this act of violence happened.

And oftentimes fellow officers or detectives are upset, emotionally upset. They feel like they’re to blame. Could there have been something I could have done to prevent this from happening?

There’s aggravation in that they feel something in the system let this happen. They could have gotten a stiffer sentence. They could have gotten more intense supervision. They should have been referred to alcohol treatment, and they weren’t. Nobody was giving them an opportunity to get a job. That’s all they need was to get a job, so they could get out of here. The reason that they’re involved in drug dealing is they need a job. But moreover, I think I see an overall sense of something more needs to be done, and that's the common theme.

One of my officers said it best. He said, ‘Serg, I’m tired of going to these dead bodies. I’m tired of going to to to these calls of somebody I just talked to. Of somebody dead I just talked to.’ It definitely makes an impact, and it definitely is taking its toll. Not only on the gang officers, but on the detectives who work with the victims of the deceased.

What type of violence has been happening recently?

It’s senseless. It’s personal conflict and personal argument. And a lot of these individuals may not necessarily know how to handle conflict other than through violence. A lot of them and if you look back potentially a some of their histories … you literally see the trauma.

And it’s like an “aha” moment. Not that that applies to every person, but it makes sense. It makes sense to see how they got from here to there if nothing was done in between. And that’s where I think there needs to be more done.

As a witness, they're not going to be a suspect of anything, so I’m not going to arrest them and force them into treatment by way of the juvenile court system, but they still need that same treatment.

Can you describe how gang activity differs in larger cities?

It’s out of control for sure. Certainly in Chicago. It’s completely out of control. They’re trying their best to get a handle on it but it’s more in line with the drug trading that’s happening there and the territorial issue that’s happening with the gangs.

All of our issues have been involving personal conflict. Personal beef. We’ve seen things start with name calling on Facebook or social media and has evolved into homicides. That is their way of just communicating on Snapchat, Instagram or whatever. No longer is anyone having that face-to- interaction, but when they do have that face-to-face interaction after all of this tension on social media, that’s when it blows up

So in comparison to Chicago and us is we have the same gangs here, we have the same a lot of our gang members here have connections to Chicago or Milwaukee or Minneapolis, but what we don’t see is that turf war and that is what you’re experiencing in larger cities. Madison is too small for that. We’re big, but we’re too small. Most of these people know each other.They went to school with each other They grew up in the same neighborhoods with one another.

It’s harder to pull the trigger in the face of somebody you know versus Chicago damn near everybody is going to be a stranger especially in an opposite gang. We only have so many schools here, we only have so many neighborhoods and so people are going to know each other here. That’s what makes our crime levels, it’s going to keep those down because of those personal relationships people have, but it’s also what’s going to stem some of the complexities in trying to solve some of these homicides.

If a gang member gets killed here you, name it, who's it going to be? We don’t necessarily have the rival gangs to immediately look for like you do in Chicago. I don’t want that, but it would certainly make my job easier. What we have instead, we have to rely on our gang officer, on our neighborhood officers to go out in the streets and to research what is the beef about.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.