Legacy of OP's first black commander

'Cop's cop' Buckney came in 1988 toa department rife with racial tensions.

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By BILL DWYER

In Appreciation/Deputy Chief Edward Buckney
Edward L. Buckney, the African American Chicago police commander who became Oak Park's first outside deputy police chief during a time of festering racial tension in the police department, has died. Buckney, 76, passed away Friday, April 1 in Chicago of complications from Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's Disease. A 34 year veteran of the Chicago department, Buckney had served as Commander of the Chicago Police Academy, among other key positions. It was while at the Academy that he came to the attention of then-village manager Neil Nielsen, who would in 1988 select him from a pool of 47 candidates to fill a newly created deputy chief opening.

Buckney joined a department in considerable turmoil. 

"He came to the department at a tumultuous time in its history," said current Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley last week. The year 1988 saw several Oak Park cops resign under pressure, two others legally prosecuted, and a black officer, 12 year veteran Sylester Gilty, fired by the Fire and Police Commission for lying about his academic credentials. The department was perceived by many, particularly blacks, as being a dead end for minorities.

By many accounts, Buckney played a key role in helping transform the department's atmosphere into one of greater trust and an increased expectation of professionalism that continues to benefit officers of all ethnic backgrounds.

Tanksley, who served under Buckney as both a Sergeant and a Commander, called him "a trail blazer," as well as a mentor and role model. A proud and disciplined man who held a B.A. in speech and a master's in public administration, Buckney paid close attention to his appearance and demeanor, and insisted that officers under his command live up to his high standards of professional behavior.

"The one thing he always, always displayed was this high level of professionalism," said former Oak Park village trustee Robert Sherrell, a fellow African American who knew Buckney on Chicago's South Side some 20 years before they worked together in Oak Park.

Former Police Chief Joseph Mendrick served with Buckney as both his peer as deputy chief, and later as his immediate supervisor. Mendrick said Monday that he'll always be grateful that Buckney, who had planned to retire in 1992, stayed on an extra year to help his friend settle into his new job.

"He was just a person I was blessed to have met," said Mendrick.

While proud of his cultural heritage, Buckney, said Sherrell, left his heritage at home when he left for his job.

"He made it clear that his first line of responsibility was to his department and to the community he served," said Sherrell. "Cops were supposed to be cops, and not playing social and racial games."

There was, both Mendrick and Tanksley acknowledge, considerable apprehension by many white officers when Buckney joined the force. But Buckney's integrity, fairness and professionalism, they say, won over his subordinates on the force.

"It didn't take them long to admire the man's abilities in law enforcement," said Mendrick.

"Chief Buckney was an individual who was going to get his respect," said Tanksley. "And he earned ours."

For black officers, Buckney's hiring was a clear sign that genuine change was coming.

"There was a lot of bitterness," said Tanksley of the state of affairs regarding the lack of black supervisors in 1988.

"It immediately raised our morale. We knew at that point that doors were going to open."

Just how essential it was and is to have meaningful African American involvement at the top levels of village government became undeniably apparent for many on April 29, 1992. The events that unfolded at that time were, wrote Journal publisher Dan Haley in his May 6, 1992 column "a chance to see Oak Park at its best and most remarkable." Buckney played a central role in that moment, along with then manager Neil Nielsen, Sherrell and Tanksley.

The previous day three Los Angeles cops had been acquitted by a jury?#34;one with no blacks on it?#34;of charges stemming from the 1991 Rodney King beating. In L.A. 54 people died, 2,000 were injured and an estimated $900 million in damage done in three subsequent days of rioting. The verdict roiled emotions here in Oak Park as well.

"If ever it became clear why Oak Park? had to find a way to bring black officers into command positions, it was last Wednesday afternoon," Haley wrote.

When some 150 students, mostly black, marched from Oak Park and River Forest High School to Village Hall after school, Neilsen ordered police to clear traffic and to escort the marchers. One of the march organizers had arranged with Sherrell to open the doors to village hall, and the crowd was ushered into the council chambers.

Things didn't exactly go smoothly during the meeting. Much anger was vented, and many of the teens bitterly decried what they said were numerous previous instances of harassment by Oak Park police. One expressed concern that a Rodney King style incident could occur here. At that point, Buckney spoke up.

"Whatever the circumstances are, everyone gets a fair deal," Buckney told the crowd. He then made several comments that simply could not have been made by a white police official without them being dismissed out of hand.

"To the dismay of the student crowd," according to the May 6, 1992 issue of Wednesday Journal, Buckney denied there was any racial harassment by police. The Oak Park police department, he insisted, was "much fairer than it ever was before I came here. We know it is incumbent upon us to police ourselves."

His audience didn't like those or other statements made by Buckney, but he had the cache to be able to say it.

Those who knew him say that Buckney left behind a force better for his having served on it, and numerous individuals better for having worked with him.

 "I truly loved the man," Tanksley said "He left his mark on the force."

"It is a direct result of my learning from him that I'm where I am today."

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