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By Megan Dooley
In his own words, Dennis Leaks will explain that he's not reinventing the wheel. Everything he does in his current position as Community Policing Liaison for the Oak Park Police Department has been done for years. It's just that it used to be in the hands of a police officer.
Beginning in April, the police department decided to take a different direction when they hired Leaks, a civilian, to fill the newly created liaison position. Prior to Leaks' arrival, similar tasks were carried out by community service officers. But there seemed always to be a divide between the public and the police, and the department hopes Leaks will bridge that gap.
"We wanted to bring in a citizen from the outside ... who would allow us another way to connect with the community and could offer a different perspective for us," said Sgt. Dave Jacobson.
Hiring a civilian in the position also addresses another issue between the department and village residents. "Not everybody wants to talk to police officers," explained Jacobson. "They might be better willing to open up to us if we had a civilian representative."
Leaks has, in many ways, been preparing for such a position for much of his adulthood. His father was a police officer, and Leaks himself has been in the Army Reserves for nearly a decade. He graduated college with a degree in public administration, but quickly determined that his community involvement would best be served outside of a government position.
Before he was hired by the Oak Park Police Department, Leaks worked for two years as a food stamp outreach coordinator for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. And because of the recession, he was interacting with people from highly diverse backgrounds.
"We had to deal with not just the people who had had exposure to the program for maybe [their] entire lives in some cases, but we had to deal with a lot of newly unemployed professionals who had no idea how the program worked at all," Leaks said. Sensitivity was essential in connecting with these clients. "We had to be there really to comfort them in a lot of situations because for some of them it was really humiliating or embarrassing that they had to ask these questions."
Navigating such interpersonal minefields, Leaks felt prepared for his current endeavor.
"It's the perfect role for me because my job is to be out talking to people," Leaks said.
Jacobson noted that Leaks' first few months in the position have been mostly an orientation period, but he has also worked on creating a survey to gauge the needs of the public.
"I want to get a lot of their feedback as far as our zone meetings," Leaks said. The village is divided into eight zones, each of which holds a monthly meeting conducted by the resident beat officer assigned to that zone.
"The meetings are really not about us so much as ... about us getting the perspectives of the citizens and their safety and their quality of life," Leaks said.
The process of getting the public to speak up and be more involved is not an easy one, especially because the Oak Park Police Department seems to be a pioneer in the effort. "It's hard to look at other departments and benchmark from them because a lot of the things we're doing, a lot of people are not doing as much as we are, or have not been doing them for as long," Leaks said.
One model he turns to is the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) program in the city of Chicago.
"It's been around since the '90s. It's their version of community policing," Jacobson said. "They have civilians who act as mediators in the community, which go out there and gather information ... about the community. And they also act as a go-between between the neighborhoods. And that's where we're trying to model a lot of what we do, and a lot of what the expectations are for Dennis."
Leaks said his major goal is to be very vocal and visible in the public, and to educate residents on the number of different services, apart from crime-related law enforcement, that the police department provides.
"That's really the major part, to be out and about so people can view me and see me as a resource," Leaks said.
"We need to spread awareness ... of our services," Jacobson said. He added that there won't be any confusion about Leaks' civilian role in the department. "He's not the police. He's not going to represent himself as the police," he said.
Jacobson said Leaks' transition so far has been smooth and effective. And Leaks himself said that in his role as a community liaison, he's found the ideal position to match his personality.
"I didn't intend to do something like this, but it really was more of the perfect fit for me," he said.