Oak Park village trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla (FILE)

 “Hi, I called you. There were three kids that were riding their bikes, hitting people with their bikes and they weren’t listening to us when we told them to stop,” said the white woman to the Oak Park police officer who arrived on the scene at Euclid Park. 

Observing this incident, which happened almost three years ago, cemented in my mind the warped definition of safety that exists in our community. The white woman had called the police on three young Black children, the smallest who seemed around 6 years old, the oldest maybe younger than 10 years. The white woman had called the police on them because they were riding their bikes over the “hills” inside the playground. Calling the police made her feel safe, while simultaneously traumatizing three young children. I left the playground that day thinking of Tamir Rice, a young Black boy who was killed by Cleveland police at 12 years old for playing with a toy gun on a playground.

In Oak Park, some trustees and village staff tell residents to call the police for everything — for any issue or perceived danger they might have. The police are our help desk in our community. They respond to any and every issue, fully armed — even to resolve playground disputes. White Oak Parkers deploy the police to surveil, question and intimidate Black and Brown people in our community. 

Since 2014, even as the number of non-police village staff has decreased, the number of Oak Park Police Department staff has increased. The 2014 budget funded 115 sworn police officers, and 34 civilian police department staff. The 2019 budget allocated funding for 121 sworn police officers and 31 civilian police department staff. The number of police officers has increased even as crime rates have remained relatively stable in our community. 

Approximately 40 percent of the Village of Oak Park’s General Fund dollars are used to pay for policing. Policing is the village’s single, largest expense. And with our 2020 Capital Improvement Plan allocating an additional $40 million for a new police building, Oak Park continues to throw more money at its carceral infrastructure with no equivalent investment in community services that would actually improve the lives of all residents in our community. 

Earlier this year, I requested that the Citizen Police Oversight Commission (CPOC) review all police department general orders — such as the Use of Force order — and the rest of the board members disagreed. I have called out the egregious appointment made to CPOC, which is currently an overwhelmingly white male and police-friendly commission counting multiple ex-law enforcement personnel as commissioners. Since my time in office, our village government has failed at every opportunity to reign in police spending or increase oversight over our police.

This is why I helped create Freedom to Thrive Oak Park, an organization that has worked tirelessly over the past year to research the currently warped definition of community safety in Oak Park. That it has taken a nationwide uprising sparked by the murder of yet another Black person to awaken the conscience of Oak Park trustees so they take a stand on issues of policing in our community is irredeemable.  

The village president and some trustees have now shown performative solidarity with the movement for Black lives, by taking a knee with Oak Park police, and signing on to the Obama Foundation’s Pledge to review the use of force policy and engage the community on this issue. These actions, at this moment, are not enough. Signing on to the Obama Pledge will not solve Oak Park’s policing problems. I believe this moment calls not just for reforming our policing, but, as Freedom to Thrive Oak Park calls for in our report — defunding our police and a full reimagining of our definition of community safety.  

Oak Park’s current definition of community safety creates walls between Oak Park and its surrounding “unsafe” communities. We stop anyone who doesn’t appear to “belong” here. Data show that over 40 percent of the traffic stops made by Oak Park police involve people of color, mainly Black and Latinx people. We must acknowledge that every police interaction has impact and causes trauma — and we have heard this countless times in public comment before the village board. 

Community safety does not come from hiring more police and using the police as our community’s security guards to stop and question anyone that doesn’t seem like they “belong” here. Community safety comes when we reimagine what it means to have a safe and healthy community and we ensure that everyone, not just a select few, have what they need to thrive. 

Trained and experienced mediation professionals could respond when disputes need to be settled, instead of armed police officers who can escalate situations. Individuals experiencing mental health or sensory challenges could interact with mental health professionals able to connect them with services, instead of officers who criminalize them. Community safety comes from defunding the police budget and reinvesting that money into affordable housing and rent and utility subsidies so that we cannot only find permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness, but also respond to the housing and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

COVID-19 has shown us that we must redefine community safety and fund the basic necessities people need to thrive. Even within Oak Park, Black residents who represent roughly 19 percent of the population, make up 44 percent of Oak Park’s COVID-19 infections. The racial disparities seen with COVID-19 are a glaring reminder that the definition of community safety is centered on white comfort and safety. Never has the argument been stronger for the need to divest from punitive and carceral infrastructure and invest in the social and economic needs of our community than in this moment. I urge the village leadership to listen to the young voices rising up in this moment, and gather the political courage to defund the police and reinvest our resources so that each and every life in our community has the opportunity to thrive.

Arti Walker-Peddakotla is an Oak Park village trustee and organizer with Freedom to Thrive Oak Park.

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