The Oak Park Police Department, located in the basement of Village Hall, is outdated, overcrowded and unsuitable for a modern police force, according to Oak Park trustees.
Now the village is considering spending up to $200,000 on a study to determine if the village should build a new station or rehab the existing one.
The item has been included in the village’s so-called Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), a five-year plan for various capital projects that is now being considered by the Oak Park Board of Trustees.
The entire CIP includes dozens of potential projects that top $27 million over the next five years, but approval of the plan, which is expected to come sometime in early October, is simply that – a plan that lays out proposed projects the village aims to pursue.
The $200,000 for the feasibility study in 2018 could be less or could be more if the project is approved and put out to public bid. The proposal also includes a tentative $15 million to build the police station in 2019.
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said in a telephone interview that this is the third year the board of trustees has been asked to approve a five-year capital improvement plan, which covers everything from street and alley repairs to deferred maintenance of police and fire stations.
She said the dollar amounts connected to items in the CIP aren’t exact numbers “because we haven’t designed those projects or taken bids.”
Pavlicek said that in years past, village boards and staff did not engage in creating such a “robust, formal document … approved in a public process.”
She said the five-year plan helps give residents an idea when alleys and streets will be repaired, for example.
“It’s nice to have a plan that says, ‘Alright, unless something changes this is when we anticipate doing this,'” she said.
Pavlicek said the current police station “is not serving the function it is intended to” noting that, among other problems, the shooting range is not functioning.
Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who has spoken publicly about building a new police department for years, said the current police department is “lacking.” When considering capital projects, there are wants and there are needs, Abu-Taleb said.
“In my view, this doesn’t belong in the ‘want’ column; this belongs in the ‘need’ column,” he said.
Building a new station is important in attracting top law enforcement talent, he said, and sending a message that the village supports the police department in its mission of keeping the community safe.
“We need to show our police department and our police officers that they deserve to work in a facility where they can store their belongings, have a training facility, and when someone is taken into custody they are given the proper entry,” he said.
Trustee Dan Moroney, who recently toured the police station with Trustee Deno Andrews, called the facility “inadequate.”
Housing the police department in the basement of Village Hall fails to give police “the presence they deserve to fully serve the community,” Moroney said.
Moroney, who has promised to hold the line on unnecessary spending in the village, acknowledged that spending upwards of $15 million on a new police station could be a tough sell with the residents already straddled with an increasing tax burden.
“I think this is Oak Park, and it’s going to be controversial no matter what,” he said. “Everyone’s going to have their own opinion, but I’ve heard repeatedly, and I tend to agree, that safety is number one. If we do not have a sense of safety in this community, that every corner of this village is a safe place to live, if we start to lose that, things change dramatically.”
Moroney also says building a new station on Madison Street could be an economic driver for the commercial corridor.
Trustee Andrews said the existing police station is “well below our standards as Oak Parkers.”
He said that after the recent tour of the station, “I wouldn’t have anybody working down there.”
“I want to see the police in a more suitable location,” he said.
He said the officers work in cramped quarters and the station has no windows.
“They’re all doing a fantastic job in that environment, but it’s clear that the records room is bursting at the seams,” he said. “Also, the laboratory to process evidence – it looks like a 50-year-old kitchen. Everything is old and it’s embarrassing. It’s not a state-of-the-art evidence lab.”
He said the projected $200,000 is likely enough for a specialist to assess the needs of the department and the potential for building a new station.
“I don’t think a new building is going to make Oak Park safer, but having a more efficient workspace and a more suitable and efficient evidence room … it just creates efficiencies.
“If you were to go downstairs and look at the evidence room – it’s stacked floor to ceiling with evidence; there’s just very little room to operate. At some point it seems like a detriment to how evidence is handled.”
Trustee Bob Tucker echoed his colleagues’ thoughts on the inadequacy of the police department, noting that “it’s not an optimal station for modern policing.”
“We recognize that a brand new stand-alone police station is going to be a big-ticket item and have a financial impact,” he said, but Tucker added that “public safety has to be first and foremost in Oak Park.”
“We need to make sure police officers and firefighters have the tools they need to make citizens safe,” he said.
Neither Oak Park Police Chief Anthony Ambrose nor Trustee Jim Taglia could immediately be reached for comment. Trustees Simone Boutet and Andrea Button did not return a call requesting an interview.