By Megan Dooley
In response to a public statement made by one of its officers that information about underage drinking parties and citations are typically kept from the media, the Oak Park Police Department said Friday that the officer in question misspoke, and that no such media policy exists.
If reports of underage drinking incidents were excluded from daily police reports sent to the media, Chief Rick Tanksley said it was not by design, but simply an oversight.
"It really made me mad, the insinuation that we would somehow try to hide something," said Tanksley. "I don't know if that's what people are thinking, that we would purposely leave things off the summary because we didn't want to report it? That's not the case."
Oak Park police Commander Keenan Williams made the statement a week ago at a forum for parents of middle school-aged children about drug and alcohol use among juveniles. "There's rules regarding what we do report out to the media...but typically things such as parties and rowdy gatherings, we don't report to the news," Williams said, adding that the department is looking into revising that policy to become more "communication-friendly."
But Tanksley said that's a mistake. "Commander Williams misspoke. There is no policy. Our policy is what it has always been. Our response to underage drinking parties has always been the same. A zero tolerance. If there's evidence of underage drinking, those individuals will be cited," he said.
Tanskley admitted those reports haven't always made it on the crime summaries sent out to the media. But, he said, that is only because the summaries generally include only the more serious infractions that occur each day, such as burglaries, thefts, and assaults.
From now on, though, the chief said underage drinking reports will be included. "Given the amount of discussion, and the attention the issue of drug and alcohol use by teens is going on in this community, underage drinking parties are certainly newsworthy. And as such, they should and must and will be listed on our summary," Tanksley said.
At the parents' forum, Williams said there were 21 underage arrests for violation of drug laws in 2009, and the number grew to 36 in 2010. Williams indicated the numbers are showing continuous yearly growth.
"I haven't checked his statistics. I don't know where he got those statistics," Tanksley said. But he argued that the numbers might be misleading. "We're not responding to a party every other weekend. It's occasional," he said.
Asked if he believes Oak Park has a serious underage drinking and drug use problem, Tanskley said it's no more so than in other communities, at least from the police's perspective. "That's hard to answer because we only see the problem from one angle. That's the angle of it being reported to us," he said. "People who have a closer association to youth in regards to this particular issue, they might have a different perspective. But I cannot say at this point that our reports of underage drinking parties are occurring today any more than they did last year."
Oak Park Deputy Chief Anthony Ambrose agreed. "When you have two high schools in town, you have a lot of kids. You are going to have get-togethers. You are going to have occasions where some kids will push the limits and bring things in that they shouldn't bring. But if people think that this is a party central, it's not," he said.
Ambrose said the department encourages parents to get involved to keep teen drinking and drug use at a minimum. "With the community policing efforts, we encourage people to know who is in their neighborhoods," he said.
And the department is very much on board with efforts to boost drug education for both middle school and high school kids. "And it's not only drug and alcohol education, but avoidance of gangs and bullying and strangers and all of that stuff," Tanksley said. "Kids are exposed to, and I think much more able to take in, a lot of information, process a lot of information now than probably 30 years ago, because of the Internet and all this media. So I think education has to start younger in regards to those serious things."