It’s hard to get ahead when you’ve got a blind spot. And Oak Park has a blind spot when it comes to its pretty good police force. Reminds me of Oak Park’s self-indulgence when it looks back at its early experiment in racial integration in the 1970s. Community leaders went from wholesale innovation into a posture of believing its own national press clippings. Made it hard to ask tough questions. It’s still hard.
Now we’ve got a police department that is better than many. But not good enough, going forward. Thankfully, we’re in a moment where all policing is intensely, rightly under scrutiny. There is the horror of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis piled on the murders of so many other black men by police. And then there is the stunning aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s death where videos just spool up of cops nationwide proving the point that they are too often unaccountable bullies, proving the point in Buffalo and in Philadelphia that cops, white cops specifically, will always defend other white cops.
The code is real. It is them vs. us. Especially but — wake up, white people — not only when the “us” is a man of color.
So Monday, Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb announced he will take Oak Park into a process urged by the Obama Foundation that will address police violence and systemic racism through an intense and open review of Oak Park’s use-of-force policies. He promises that review will “engage the community” and include diverse experiences and stories.
Sounds good. Now prove it.
In the press release announcing this progress, Village Manager Cara Pavlicek reports that, since LaDon Reynolds was promoted to police chief last year, “an internal review of all Oak Park police operational procedures and policies has been underway.” The internal review sounds decidedly tone deaf at this point. The oppressed would like a word about this process.
(Not a great time for Chief Reynolds to be out on family leave. But family leave is there for the moments you are needed at home. And no doubt the chief is playing an active role from home.)
While we are theoretically doing a deep dive into policing here, it’s time to reopen the police contract and extract all the language guaranteeing privacy to cops who receive citizen complaints, who are written up for internal discipline. The citizens allow officers to carry a badge and a gun, and a baton and a Taser. We need access to understand how individual officers use that privilege.
Oak Park, and every other police department, needs to assess its hiring and promotion practices. This department is not diverse enough and current hiring practices don’t further diversity.
And it is past time for Oak Park to require every officer wears a bodycam. We need to invest in policing technology that grows accountability.
While “Defund the Police” has become a catchy slogan in the astounding and ongoing national protests, I would go with “Rethink Policing.” We need great police officers. But their job is ever more complex and will, perpetually, be under video scrutiny by citizens. So how do we improve training as we reset our expectations for what makes a great cop? It’s not by measuring arrests, certainly. Can we teach and measure de-escalation? Can we teach engagement with citizens who are black, brown, poor, dispossessed, mentally ill?
Oak Park can make a good case that training works on issues of mental health. This has been a priority of the past three chiefs, a focal point of training, an area where Oak Park has invested in supplementing social work and mental health professionals to work alongside officers. And it has worked. At the same time Oak Park has gotten into a pissing match with the township over funding for the valued youth interventionist program. Not smart.
At the close of a powerful, well attended protest march Thursday from Oak Park’s village hall to Austin’s Central Avenue and back, Rep. LaShawn Ford, a key organizer, said he and other legislators will have wide-ranging police reform policies ready by the fall session. Racial bias training. Retaining all records of police discipline. Creating paths to firing bad cops. All on his agenda.
And on Monday Gov. J.B. Pritzker reinforced that saying “major police reforms” are coming statewide.
It can’t happen too soon. Oak Park’s opportunity to lead on policing is short. Make it count.