When Jacques Conway retired from the Oak Park police force July 29, he was the first and still the only black officer to reach retirement in the village’s history.
Conway was hired in 1984, along with two other minority candidates, including current chief Rick Tanksley.
He joined a force that had only six black police officers with no black or Hispanic supervisors, commanders or recruiters. Before Conway, the last black officer had been hired in 1979.
According to Conway, 44, who served 22 years on the job as a patrol officer, detective, sergeant and community policing officer, the Oak Park police force back then was not the force many Oak Parkers know today. In the 1980s, the department faced charges of racism within its ranks, despite Oak Park’s reputation as an oasis of racial diversity and harmony.
In early 1983, the six black officers on the force filed a lawsuit against the village charging discrimination in the police department’s promotional practices.
At the time of the lawsuit, Conway was a student at Loyola University. The suit was settled out of court in May of 1983 after a federal mediator was brought in to help settle the dispute. At the time, none of the six black officers were promoted to sergeant or other supervisory positions, even though some had been on the force since the mid-’70s.
Among the department’s supervisory positions-one chief, two deputy chiefs, seven lieutenants, and 16 sergeants-all were white males.
The settlement resulted in changes to the department’s promotion and hiring practices. Officers were originally promoted based on written and oral exams, and by a recommendation of a superior. After the settlement, no officers would be promoted using the department’s old exam process and results. Officers would also be evaluated based on more than 30 specific categories, which remains the practice today. The settlement also required recruits to have 16 hours of college credit. Black officers on staff were also allowed to actively recruit black applicants, which had been resisted prior to the suit.
The changes, however, did not result in changed attitudes by some white officers.
By the time a 21-year-old Conway joined the force in ’84, there was widespread resentment against what some white officers felt was “forced affirmative action” upon the department, Conway recalled.
“The early part of our time was kind of difficult because the white officers felt the village was forcing affirmative action without a court order,” Conway said. “[The village was] kind of saying, ‘OK, we admit there is discrimination against blacks, and we’re going to change our standards.'”
Conway married his high school sweetheart, LaMenta, the same year he joined the force. A native of Chicago’s South Side, he said his only prior experience with Oak Park was working as a sales clerk in his teens at a Lytton’s clothing store at Lake Street and Forest Avenue. His only other job before becoming a cop was, while in college, working for Cook County Commissioner Jeanne Quinn, who recommended that he take the police exam.
Conway said he caught the brunt of the department’s racism in those early years. He recalls one of his supervisors, a white officer, telling him directly that he wasn’t going to make it as a cop, and that the department had enough black officers. During his 18-month probation period, which all new officers receive, he was assigned to take a remedial reading class at Triton College despite minoring in English while still a student at Loyola. That, he said, was particularly humiliating.
“I think it was to build a case that I couldn’t do the job,” Conway said. “It was tough, being young, and this was really my first full-time job. Thank God there were some white officers who understood what we were going through, and were very helpful-so helpful.”
Conway entered the police academy while still attending Loyola, switching to night classes while attending the academy during the day. He was on the force when he graduated in 1986. By that time, he the other new officers had almost had enough.
“It was rough for me during those first several years,” Conway recalled. “For all of us who were hired in 1984 and afterward, at one point, like in 1986, we were looking to get out. It was very stressful.”
Conway stuck it out but continued to face racism-both in and outside the department.
He recalled sometime in 1986 while on patrol with another officer who was white, they observed an elderly black female driver committing a traffic violation, to which the white officer responded, “Nigger, learn to drive.”
Conway didn’t responded to the remark. Most black officers, he said, knew not to complain, in part because there was no one to complain to.
“I mean, we didn’t have any blacks in leadership positions or as supervisors,” he said, “so they could pretty much get away with things that they can’t get away with now.”
Conway recalled another incident during a murder investigation at an Oak Park home where he and other patrol officers were assigned to section off the house. While standing near the perimeter beyond the yellow tape, Conway recalled a white resident coming out on their front porch and yelling, “They need to keep those niggers in Austin!”
It wasn’t determined at the time who the suspect was or the individual’s race, Conway said.
He observed other deplorable acts, such as white officers telling young black kids brought into the station that they would give them a break if they would breakdance for them, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.
“Those are memories that will stay with me my whole life,” he said.
Rising through the ranks
In spite of such incidents, Conway rose through the ranks within the department, and also managed to pursue some of his personal interests outside the department.
In 1988, he was assigned to the department’s sex crimes against minors detective unit. In 1992, he was promoted to sergeant. Three years later, he was chosen as the department’s first community policing sergeant.
In 1988, Conway was involved in the fatal shooting of a suspect. The department did not at the time have a counseling unit for officers. He helped create one for the department. Conway applied to the seminary in 1992, and subsequently helped reorganize the department’s chaplain program.
He graduated from the Chicago Theological Seminary at the University of Chicago in 1995, and for seven years, ministered at Christ United Methodist Church in the Englewood community on the South Side while still on the force. He became pastor of Neighborhood United Methodist Church in Maywood in 2003.
Conway started the Oak Park Police Explorers program in 1995, which enables youth to learn about law enforcement, public service and volunteerism.
He also started the Junior Police Academy and the Citizens Academy.
“It really was a fit for me because of my personality,” he said of his activism on the force. “It allowed me to do police work the way I feel it should be done, which is having a relationship with the community. You don’t just show up at a crime; you get to know the people you are serving.”
Conway also served as a commissioner on the Park District of Oak Park board for six years, beginning in 1999. He was elected to the District 200 Board of Education in 2005. Conway and his wife have three children-two enrolled at Oak Park and River Forest High School and one at Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest.
Conway said he decided to retire from the police department because he felt the windows of opportunity there had closed for him. His decision came shortly after being passed over for his seventh appointment. As a sergeant, he can only be promoted to a higher position. He was also removed from his post as community policing officer and said he doesn’t know why. Conway suspects that some in the department and village concluded that he couldn’t serve the village and sit in judgment on it simultaneously as a board member though that was never an issue in the past.
He acknowledged, however, that being an Oak Park police officer opened many doors for him professionally, socially and politically. Conway wants to return to law enforcement, perhaps with Maywood in some capacity.
As for the Oak Park Police Department, since 1984, the department has hired a chief, three commanders and a recruiter who are black.
But the department, and community, Conway believes, still has a long way to go.
“Why am I the only one?” he asked, who made it to retirement. “Are you telling me there were no other black officers who could make it? The others who came before me weren’t worthy? That’s something, I hope, the community feels is worthy of discussion.”