The lack of African Americans serving on the city and local school boards, and a poor relationship between police and the public served as the foundation for recent racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri, an Oak Park panel on diversity concluded last week.

The forum, held last week in the main library and co-sponsored by the library, the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and Wednesday Journal, focused on the similarities and differences between Ferguson and Oak Park. For weeks the city of Ferguson faced protests and what some have called an overreaction by police following a police officer shooting an unarmed black teenager.

Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley said a big part of the problem in Ferguson, and other communities across the nation, rests in how the police department interacts with the public. 

Tanksley said one bad encounter with a cop can turn a resident against the police department. Although he acknowledged that much of the crime committed in Oak Park is perpetrated by black men, it is vital that law-abiding black residents are treated with dignity. 

He recounted a story from his teenage years about being approached by an Oak Park police officer when he was opening a window outside his own home. He said the officer treated him like a criminal, asking whether he lived at the residence. How the police address the public dictates their relationship with the public, Tanksley said.

He also said military-style weapons used in Ferguson served to exacerbate the situation. Military weapons and vehicles such as Humvees are frequently offered to police departments across the country, but they do not have to take them, Tanksley said.

“A Humvee driving down the streets of Oak Park would be inappropriate,” he added.

The Oak Park Police Department was recently recognized by the New York Times and the Associated Press for being among the most racially diverse police departments in the country. Of 114 officers on the force, 69 percent are white, 18 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and four percent other. The racial makeup of the village is 68 percent white, 22 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and 5 percent other.

Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, noted that there are misperceptions about crime in Oak Park, particularly on the east side of the village, which runs adjacent to the predominantly black Chicago neighborhood of Austin.

He said the Housing Center encourages people of different races to integrate, but he hears on a daily basis that prospective new tenants fear living in areas that are not predominantly of their demographic.

Breymaier said he tells prospective residents that crime has gone down consistently in all areas of the village over the last 20 years. “All it takes is one robbery or one mugging; [then people think] the whole community is unsafe,” 

Breymaier said, noting that village government and the police department need to remain vigilant in regard to integration and understanding between different races.

“You have to care about it, you have to think about it, and you have to do something about it,” Breymaier said.

Breymaier said the Housing Center intends to continue holding monthly forums on race and diversity.

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