In the wake of civil unrest and anger over systemic racism in law enforcement, the nation now demands more public oversight in policing and detail on how departments operate. In Oak Park there are two citizen commissions designated to oversee different aspects of the police department – the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners and the Citizens Police Oversight Committee (CPOC). Layered into review of police discipline matters is a process involving a third-party arbiter as dictated by the contract between the village and the local Fraternal Order of Police union lodge.
“The Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, their role is to oversee the hiring and promotional process for sworn police officers and for our fire department,” said Kira Tchang, Oak Park’s human resources director.
That three-member board handles both entry-level hiring and promotion of officers to higher ranks.
After standardized testing is administered, the Fire and Police commissioners conduct oral interviews. Also participating are Tchang and the police or fire chief, depending on which department has the openings. Candidates vying for entry-level police positions also have to pass background checks.
“An amazing number of candidates don’t pass,” those checks said Colette Lueck, a member of the Police and Fire board and a former village trustee. “Lots of it is adolescent encounters with the police. Some say they’ve completed degrees they haven’t really finished.”
According to Lueck, the best candidates are typically those that have law enforcement experience, such as completing an internship with another police department or working with the National Guard.
Progress is being made in diversifying the Oak Park police department said Lueck though that headway has come through a focus on recruiting candidates and is not considered as part of the testing process. Lueck said the commission interviewed a significant number of people of color during their last round of interviews for entry-level police positions.
The Fire and Police Commission formerly played a role in the disciplinary process but lost that authority through changes made to the collective bargaining agreement between the village of Oak Park and the FOP a number of years ago.
“Those roles and responsibilities have really moved away and been given over to the police department and the village manager,” said Tchang.
Transferring the authority to discipline police came at the request of FOP, Lueck said, and happened during her tenure as a village trustee.
“I think folks thinking about reforming police have to understand the role of the union and how powerful they are,” Lueck said.
The collective bargaining agreement contains a formal grievance process for discipline. If a police officer feels the initial discipline measure breaches the agreement, it can be grieved up to the level of the village manager. If that does not bring resolution, the case goes to an independent arbitrator.
“If it continues to be in dispute by the union than it could rise to the level of the arbitrator, in which case the arbitrator would lay out the final decision on the case,” said Tchang.
According to Lueck, when it comes to settling contract disputes arbitrators “almost always” side with the FOP.
The seven-member CPOC oversees the process for complaints made by citizens against a police officer or police officers and the investigations into the situation.
“We oversee the review process that the police department takes,” said CPOC Chair Jim Downing.
When the police department receives a complaint against one of its officers, the situation is reviewed and investigated by four to five sworn officers within the police department.
“Citizens raising concerns about their interactions with police officers can result in disciplinary action for an officer,” said Tchang. “But the citizen police oversight committee doesn’t recommend discipline per se.”
Then the chief or a police commander will recommend certain courses of actions, including further training for the officer or potentially disciplinary measures.
“I can’t think off the top of my head of a time when it resulted in disciplinary action,” said Downing. Downing has served on the committee for eight and a half years.
CPOC then determines whether they agree with the recommendation or if they believe further investigation is necessary.
Doling out disciplinary measures for the officers who have been found to have committed infractions falls under the purview of the police chief though, above a certain modest level of discipline, that action can then be grieved all the way up to the arbiter.
“The police chief is ultimately the one who signs off on any progressive discipline that’s occurring within the police department,” said Tchang.
To maintain privacy under the union contract, CPOC never learns the names of the complainants or officers; however, officers are given codenames, which allows CPOC to track potential behavioral patterns. CPOC does receive the gender and race of the officer under investigation.
According to Downing, Oak Park receives only about 20 to 30 citizen complaints against officers per year.
“The majority of complaints we get revolve around unprofessional conduct,” said Downing. “[The officer] was dismissive or not responsive, maybe acting upset.”
Unprofessional conduct also includes not returning phone calls.
Downing’s account of the complaints is in line with Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds, who said during a June 22 village board meeting that citizen complaints against police are typically about discourteous behavior.
Complaints of racial discrimination have come to CPOC but, Downing said, “It had been a while.”
Downing expects the number of complaints to grow as citizens can now file complaints online an innovation pushed by Reynolds. Until recently, citizens had to go to the police department to fill out a complaint form.
An ordinance to create CPOC was passed in the 1990s and CPOC still operates within the ordinance’s perimeters, which Downing said has not changed materially since its passage.
The seven-person CPOC includes former Evanston police officer-now-lawyer Bob Pickrell. Downing is a certified fraud investigator focusing on white-collar crimes.
The committee has received criticism in the past for what some perceive to be a lack of diversity. Currently, two people of color and one woman serve on CPOC.
While its meetings are public, the investigation review and discussion occur in executive session. The complaints, meeting minutes and any documentation related to the investigation cannot be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
“If the village board wants to change the ordinance to make that part of the public meeting, or just make the entire thing public, I would fully support it,” said Downing.
In December, CPOC joined the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that we’ve had this in place,” said Downing. “It’s a great forum for citizens to voice their complaints, which I think is very important.”