Oak Park has a very good police department. We have reason to be proud of its officers and the work they do. Over three decades, the department has been innovative, rightly race conscious, and committed to the evolving definition of community policing.
In a village located at the edge of Chicago’s West Side, good neighborhoods too often stung by crime, it is only right that the village board would place public safety near the top of its list of priorities.
Though levels of crime in Oak Park are at historic lows — crime has been consistently dropping in the village for decades — incidents such as a spike in carjackings create a perception that crime is rising. The data says we’re safe, but the chatter on social media and at the grocery says, “Be wary.”
And so, to address those perceptions and to battle the real instances of crime, Oak Park leaders have, since the 1970s, invested more in policing than might be typical of a community of this size and demographic. The investment in policing is one of the main reasons taxes run high in Oak Park and also why demand for the community has run high as well.
Last week, in a village board session aimed at setting goals and protocols for this still new board, Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla raised another set of perceptions of our police department. She said the department’s reputation includes active racial profiling of people of color. She said this was of greater concern than public safety and called for a “radical transformation” of policing in Oak Park.
Her now regular foil on the board, Trustee Dan Moroney, took umbrage on behalf of the police department, lauded them for their efforts and said that Walker-Peddakotla had no data to back up her claims and accused her of defaming the department. He allowed that the department could benefit from “incremental improvements.”
Somewhere between “radical transformation” and “incremental improvements” we have an important conversation in front of us. A conversation we should begin with intention, purpose and optimism.
As a village, as a nation, we would do well to leave consciously behind the simple-minded notion that to question police is to denigrate all that they do well. It’s insulting to professional law enforcement to suggest they can’t do better, can’t be held accountable. And it is unacceptable to civilians, especially people of color, who have every reason to be suspicious of policing tactics, to imply that their realities are mere perceptions or overreactions.
Oak Park is, as it often is, in a remarkable place to lead. Our police department is strong, racially diverse by design, and adaptable. Having listened to its leaders over decades, it is clear they are conscious of complex issues of race in policing. Are there blind spots? Do they need more and better oversight? Is the data on traffic stops and officer encounters with civilians adequately gathered and assessed, including by those outside the department?
Let’s find out. Let’s welcome an organized, purposeful conversation. Let’s be grateful for questions and doubts raised. Let’s be grateful we start from a good place.