The days keep passing and Oak Park’s opportunity to lead on issues of race and policing keep receding amid a mass resignation from the Community Relations Commission and more non-productive talk at the village board table.
Those two issues are not unrelated.
An inability to lead on this issue is the low point in the tenure of Anan Abu-Taleb’s seven successful years as mayor. He seems tone deaf to both the urgency and the nuance of this debate.
After the village government stumbled about over multiple years trying to address issues of racial equity — acknowledging its own shortfalls, adding expertise in creating a lens of equity in decision-making, tackling training of the board, administration and rank and file to open its eyes wider — it failed to achieve anything like consensus when it finally acted to hire an equity training firm.
It left an already frustrated Community Relations Commission on the outside of decision-making, inevitably faced a divided village board of seven people who never had an ability or willingness to talk openly and empathetically with each other about hard issues, and, not surprisingly, went looking for equity expertise after every other town in America was casting about for the same help.
An hour’s discussion at a board meeting a week ago was illustrative of just how lost this board is on this issue. Absent leadership from the mayor, absent trust and goodwill among trustees, the discussion caromed about, even with seeming allies missing opportunities to connect.
The clearest message we might have heard is that there is general agreement that Oak Park should look at how citizen oversight of police works in this town. We’d extend that to say it raises important questions about the transparency of the disciplinary processes on the force. And there may be general agreement that, unlike many police departments in America, use-of-force policy and actions are not an underlying concern in Oak Park. That is huge.
We’d boil it down this way — and we’d acknowledge that contentious meetings by Zoom are always going to add confusion. The board discussion to this point has been unhelpful and lacking clarity. This board does not actually know what its goals are for moving forward on improved policing. This board does not agree on what outside resources it should bring to the table or what it would be asking a third party to do. If staff understands what it is being tasked to do, it is clairvoyant.
There seem to be two public meetings next week. Topic and format still being developed except we’re told it isn’t designed as a conversation and it isn’t the time to directly ask questions of the police department. OK. Why? But OK.
There are two village board meetings set aside in August to discuss policing. Unclear what those agendas look like.
We’d go back to where we started several weeks ago, if it is not too late to go back there. Oak Park has a strong police chief in LaDon Reynolds. He is thoughtful and knowledgeable about policing. He is proud of Oak Park’s department but not blind to its faults. He has a listening ear. He is highly respected among peers. He has the life experience of a Black man.
We could do worse than setting aside two hours just talking and listening. The police chief should be there. Maybe a facilitator. Honest criticism. A place where hurt and fear can be expressed. A place where a cop’s worries could also be shared. A format that is open to data already collected by activists where the goal is not to refute it but to understand it.
The village board would be welcome to attend but would not have a speaking role.
Listening. That’s where this divided board should start.