Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb is right. Elected officials should not be hurling epithets at citizens from the board table. So last week when Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla charged that a white man nominated by Abu-Taleb to serve on the volunteer Citizen Police Oversight Committee was a “racist” and a “misogynist” she was fully out of line.
That the two may have had some sort of social media history exchanging views on Walker-Peddakotla’s concerns about policing in Oak Park does not offer her cover. Her concerns, no doubt sincere, should have led her to call Abu-Taleb in advance to object to his appointment to this commission or to a cup of coffee with the nominee in question so they could have an actual conversation. Nothing beats face-to-face.
All the shouting from the board table at Oak Park Village Hall has to stop. It is an embarrassment and it degrades our civic life. This country, this moment, that cannot be allowed. We have to do better.
More importantly, though, the name-calling is a distraction on an issue where Walker-Peddakotla is completely on point, a critical matter and opportunity where she should be assertively, but civilly, leading us.
This committee, charged by the village board to “evaluate citizen complaints about police conduct and interpersonal/community relations,” is slated to have seven members. After the appointment last week of Jack Powers, it now has six. Five of them are white. Five of them are men.
Our reality as a village, as a nation is that pressure points in police interactions with citizens most often rub raw with people of color, most often African Americans. Black Oak Parkers, young male black Oak Parkers, feel a burden of police presence most acutely.
It is not something that I, as an older white man, will ever fully grasp. Certainly I will not experience it. But I can understand that the tension is there, it is real and it is perceived. And stacking the village-sanctioned committee on police-citizen interactions with white men makes no sense.
It is wrong. It is insensitive. It will not move our policing forward. And it needs to be actively addressed by both the mayor and the village board. Abu-Taleb has a blind spot here and he needs to face up to it. He needs to be made to face up to it. Adding white men to this committee in this moment is wrong. This committee should be majority African American and a much stronger blend of women and men.
There is currently one open seat on the committee. The next move is obvious. We reported last week that Tim Thomas, a black man who ran a credible race for the village board last year, sought appointment to the commission but was instead diverted to a different commission. He’d make a sound addition to the Citizen Police Oversight Committee.
Here are other thoughts to consider. While it is wrong to charge an individual as a racist without conclusive proof, it is increasingly rich to hear white people declare that another white person is not a racist. How do they know? I’d start here. I’m a racist. I know it. I accept it. I work against it. But it is baked into me. And knowing that makes me better able to see my very real blind spots.
Spent time today reviewing a year’s agendas and minutes for this oversight committee as well as its village board-approved “work plan” for the past three years. The committee meets about eight times a year. In addition to briefings from the police chief on hiring and crime stats, each meeting includes a motion to adjourn into executive session “for the purpose of discussing the discipline and performance of specific employees of the village.” Those executive sessions this past year lasted anywhere from eight minutes to 69 minutes. There is no report or recap of what was discussed, which officers were involved, what the nature of the complaint was, if any discipline was approved.
In a community where critics berate Walker-Peddakotla for her charges of police profiling and her lack of evidence of same, would be useful to have clear data on citizen complaints against officers, the nature of the complaint, the resolution. Here is an area where Oak Park, of all places, should be leading on transparency but is as much in the shadows as any community.
Immediate steps: Bring this committee to an African American majority.
Next steps: Unlock the details on citizen complaints and resolution.
Finally: With enthusiasm begin a healthy open discussion of policing in Oak Park. There’s much we do well. How can we do better?