In a tumultuous month where we have all watched two black men die in dubious shootings by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota, where twice we have followed news of the racially-fueled murders of multiple police officers in Dallas and then Baton Rouge, Rick Tanksley, Oak Park’s police chief for the past 16 years, announced he was retiring at the end of next month.
For the Oak Park native who has spent his 33-year career on this force, the national sweep of violence and the profound disconnects between community and cops that it reflects are much on his mind. He was, he said, “a little torn” about retiring now, “a critical time in law enforcement nationally. Officer-involved shootings, murders of police, protests, reform efforts.”
Tanksley has become, over years, ever more clear-eyed on the complexity of matching policing and community, of the fears and anger, the misunderstanding and the missed connections that ratchet up tensions and widen divides.
While his retirement plans are uncertain, the growing regional and national recognition Oak Park’s force has achieved for its success in community policing, in bias training, in recognizing citizens with mental health issues, in formal citizen review of complaints against officers, in ongoing citizen surveys on how police respond, have him thinking about a new career phase in consulting with other departments.
“I think there is an opportunity. Police departments can always be better,” he said. But what about the departments that don’t know they need to get better, that are satisfied with the old ways and profess to be stunned when the wheels come off, I asked. Increasingly, he said, communities are telling their towns when the department is failing them.
Tanksley said, more often than ever, Oak Parkers arrive at the police department looking to talk to him. And if he is there, he’ll talk. “I welcome questions from citizens. People want to talk to the chief. I would like it if more people just stopped in.”
That is not typical.
Tanksley was a young black man with a background in social work, when, with some hesitation and a decided lack of welcome, he applied to join an Oak Park police force far different from today.
Looking back 30-plus years, he said in a Friday interview, “Wednesday Journal was starting then and the department was in turmoil. I couldn’t believe some of these people were police officers.” He was referring both to issues of corruption, eventually prosecuted, and tied to thefts by cops from crime scenes as well as the pervasive old-boy attitude that actively resisted the progressive changes Oak Park was pursuing, especially racial integration.
As he came up through the ranks into positions of greater responsibility, he sometimes talked about the need to just outlast that final, oversized generation of Oak Park cops who were unwilling to change. He talks now about bright young people, far more diverse in race and gender, who have joined the ranks and are transforming the department.
But now, he says, more change is necessary. With the command staff rebuilt from some recession-era cutbacks, he feels ready to go and let the “organization breath and change, too.”
What does he see next for the Oak Park force? “Every officer with a body camera. I don’t see many cons. Nothing but a plus.” More training in recognizing bias at work, More mentoring of potential leaders in the department.
In the weeks after Ferguson, the Journal co-sponsored a forum at the library on how Oak Park compared. Tanksley was on the panel and offered up the most plain-spoken wisdom, the least defensive presentation that maybe I’ve ever seen in a public official in a tough moment.
Oak Park is going to miss that calm and that candor.