Rethinking policing in Oak Park ought to be right in the sweet spot of this allegedly progressive burg. Instead it feels like we are fully stuck out of fear that we lack the capacity to have a rational and invigorating conversation on how we can do community-based policing better.
A fractured Oak Park village board is rightly held responsible for this mess. Talking past each other. Talking over each other. Everyone is exasperated and defensive. Pretty pathetic when the opportunity to do good is so ripe. But the personalities are strong and trust is pretty well shot.
But if Oak Park is serious about equity, it has to look critically at policing. One place to start would be with the April project from an activist group called Freedom to Thrive Oak Park. It wrote “An Analysis of Policing Policy and Budgets in Oak Park, Illinois.”
The banging sound you hear is Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb and several trustees pounding the semi-circular desk in horror that a project with the fingerprints of Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla all over it could be used a launching pad to a discussion.
Well before Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on the street setting off a worldwide rethinking of how racism and policing intersect, Walker-Peddakotla raised hackles by saying Oak Park needed to reimagine community safety. Too much policing, not enough social services is the nut graf in this story.
A legitimate discussion for certain. Derailed by the unnecessary self-labeling of the movement as “Defunding Police.”
I didn’t read the report when it was issued in April. But I did read it this weekend. It’s only 25 pages and, in examining four key areas of local police effort it gives high marks in one, credit for progress in another, a fair whacking in a third and in the fourth, a lot of budget assumptions that I really have no way to assess.
The report says Oak Park is well ahead of the curve in keeping vile federal immigration raids out of the village and not permitting local police to work as the handmaiden of ICE.
It says that Oak Park’s general order on use of force is fairly progressive but needs some updating. It is highly critical, as I am, of Oak Park’s transparency in policing the police, in creating legitimately independent citizen oversight of the police force.
This is a real problem and one that has been made worse by Oak Park leadership’s choice in past years to undercut local oversight authority as it relates to discipline and farming it out to a third-party arbitrator.
This report could be a starting point for the conversation that has to take place openly, genuinely, somewhat informally as most good listening happens. It is a discussion I hope gets launched as Police Chief LaDon Reynolds returns this week from paternity leave – and congratulations to the chief and his family.
Instead we are waiting, I think, maybe, for some sort of request for proposal for a consultant to be hired. The board doesn’t know what it wants the consultant to do. They just want to avoid a self-conflagration at the board table. Not a sufficiently worthy goal to avoid just getting started. Doesn’t help that despite Walker-Peddakotla’s Indian heritage or Abu-Taleb’s Palestinian roots that this is an all-white village board.
Oak Park’s two school boards have for generations now been much stronger in building racially diverse boards and facing up imperfectly to issues of race and equity.
Talked last week to Colette Lueck, a former village trustee, chosen by Abu-Taleb to serve on the semi-neutered Board of Fire and Police Commissioners. Always straightforward, Lueck said the key to “reforming the police is to understand the power of the union.” That would be the Fraternal Order of Police lodge.
In a different moment and coming at it from a different perspective, Lueck said she spent her eight years on the village board asking why Oak Park had so many police officers. “I never got an answer,” she said.
Her concern was not over-policing. It was how to justify the cost when crime was quite low and police and fire pension costs were eating the village’s operating budget alive.
“I just wanted a discussion,” said Lueck.
It’s the same now. We need a discussion.