Brian Chaney Austin is Monona’s First African American Police Chief: Representative Policing

07122021Chief Brian Chaney Austin

Brian Chaney Austin began his law enforcement career with the Madison Police Department in 2002.


Part 1 of 2

By Jonathan Gramling

Brian Chaney Austin, sworn in as the city of Monona’s police chief on June 1, was like many kids growing up. He explored his surroundings and life and fortunately stayed on the right side of going the wrong way in life.

Austin was born and raised in Chicago.

“I’m a north sider,” Austin said with pride. “But I have ties to the south side and the Humboldt Park area. I spent a good deal of my childhood just learning how to be a kid, how to be a young man from the cool and means streets of the city of Chicago. I love that city. There is a

lot of great things that come with living in a bigger city such as having an appreciation for people different than yourself. Several of the apartments I lived in were well-populated by old Jewish women. I learned a lot about Judaism and that community in general. I don’t think I would have had that if I had grown up in a different environment.”

As a latch-key kid — it was just he and his mom — Austin hung out on the streets and sometimes hung out with kids who took a different path than he did.

“I was on my own since maybe 7-8-years-old,” Austin said because his mom worked hard to support them. “I let myself in the house and knew I would need to be home at a certain time. But I was out and I was exploring. I hung out with my friends in neighborhood parks in different parts of the city. In that time, I had several experiences when I was stopped by police and questioned when I was in my early pre-teens and teenage years. And after those encounters, I always walked away feeling violated in the sense that I was stopped simply because I was a Black kid walking in an area or on a street that number one, they didn’t think I belonged or number two, it was just by coincidence — there were too many coincidences — that I just matched the description of someone they were looking for. So many of us, particularly kids of color, we shared those similar stories and experiences. And we all believed them to be true because many of us lived it. And honestly, I had a very bad feeling about police. I was fearful of police.”

But ironically, it was another police stop that set Austin’s life on a course that led to him being Monona’s police chief today.

“This young police officer stopped and I thought, ‘Here we go again,’” Austin said with a smile. “He said, ‘Kid, do you mind if I talked with you?’ No cop prior to that asked me if I minded if they talked with me. I said something to the effect of, ‘What did I do?’ He said, ‘I’ve seen you around a couple of times and I work this precinct. I just wanted to introduce myself and make sure you were doing okay and you knew who I was.’ I thought, ‘Okay what’s the gimmick here? This has to be a hoax or something.’ He was very genuine in his approach. And he introduced himself by his first name. He said that he saw I was out and about in this neighborhood a lot and he wanted to make sure I felt safe and that if I ever needed anything to call the police and to make sure I kept a couple of quarters on me so that I could call my parents and knew my mom’s phone number by heart. It was just a great, great encounter and a great experience. He was a white male. I walked away from that feeling, ‘You know what? Wow if he had that big of an impact on someone who looked like me, I think I can do that.’ I had seen Black officers and I had interactions with Black officers before, but they never went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and safe. That’s just based on some of those encounters that I had. But I was like, ‘Here’s an opportunity for me to really think about how I can make a difference. Boy would that be neat. How cool would that be?’”

Austin’s path was set towards a career in public service.

“I thought maybe military or maybe something I can do to give back to the community or the country somehow and then be a good role model,” Austin recalled. “I really got involved during my high school years and started to explore a Police Explorer program. That fine-tuned my desire to become a police officer. And I formalized it in college majoring in criminal justice and going to school down at Illinois State University.”

A second police encounter of a different kid helped Austin move along in his journey toward law enforcement. It was at a career day at Illinois State.

“I met Mike Koval who used to be a recruiter for the Madison Police Department,” Austin said. “I was 18-years-old. And I met him at the first job fair that I had ever gone to. And he was in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois recruiting for the Madison Police Department. I thought, ‘How cool is that, that Madison is down here trying to recruit Chicago kids to be members of the Madison Police Department?’ He pulled me aside like a Marine recruiter. Growing up in Chicago and living in the cold Midwest tundra of the skyscraper alleyways, I was done with winter weather. I was a latch-key kid. I was out all the time. I was tired of being cold. My heart was saying, ‘Wouldn’t Tucson, Arizona or Ft. Lauderdale, Florida be great?’ But he pulled me aside as I began to walk past the Madison Police Department booth and he introduced himself. He said, ‘You look like a kid who wants to be a police officer at someplace that would get a lot from you.’”

As a poor Black kid growing up in Chicago, there were few people — outside of Austin’s mom — who thought that Austin would amount to something.

“There are a lot of limitations that are set on people of color,” Austin said. “Some of it is internal. Some of it is traditionally many of us haven’t had someone say that we would amount to anything. You really didn’t feel that support growing up. Even in my early professional years, I never really had a good sense that I could rise through the ranks.”

When Austin graduated from Illinois State, he took a job as a probation and parole agent in Lake County, Illinois. While it was definitely paying the bills and student loan payments, it wasn’t satisfying to Austin even though it was important community service. And then Austin learned that Madison was recruiting police officers. Opportunity was knocking

Next: The road to Monona and representative policing