Oak Park police conducting field investigations (non-traffic related issues) stop Black people “at six times the rate of white people,” according to data compiled by Freedom to Thrive and included in an opinion editorial written by Kevin Barnhart, an organizer with Freedom to Thrive and a member of Oak Park government’s Citizen Police Oversight Committee.

With the village government conducting two “community listening sessions” this week to gather citizen perspective on interactions with local police, Barnhart told Wednesday Journal measuring progress, “really depends on the commitment level of our local government to do something.”

The virtual sessions are 10 a.m., Aug. 5 and 7 p.m., Aug. 6. The deadline to sign up to speak at the sessions or to send in a written testimonial was 5 p.m., Aug. 3. The village of Oak Park will stream the sessions live and archive the footage on its website at www.oak-park.us/boardtv. Comcast subscribers can watch the session on channel 6. AT&T U-Verse subscribers can tune in on channel 99.

Barnhart shared data on police field investigations over the past five years collected by Freedom to Thrive volunteers in a One View in today’s Journal. The opinion piece claims evidence of racial disparities in the Oak Park Police Department. The information was obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and then analyzed and compiled into a report by Freedom to Thrive.

“Black people are stopped by Oak Park police in field investigations (non-traffic related stops), at six times the rate of white people, accounting for 78 percent of the 967 field stops made between January 2015 through June 2020,” Barnhart wrote in his op-ed.

In his editorial, Barnhart called Black “the color of suspicion in Oak Park, especially for males,” and included the statistic that “of the males stopped under the age of 18, an astounding 97 percent are Black.”

The Black and Brown residents of Oak Park would not be surprised by these statistics, Barnhart told Wednesday Journal. White residents may find these numbers shocking.

“Black and Brown folks typically know these things because they’re the ones who are experiencing the most contact with police,” said Barnhart. “Many of our white residents here in Oak Park don’t because they don’t come in contact with police.”

Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla has long pushed for a discussion of the Freedom to Thrive report with the group’s organizers at the village board table. Walker-Peddakotla is involved with the organization. Barnhart said he’d be open to doing that.

“I’d welcome that idea to have that conversation,” he said.

Barnhart also encourages Oak Park residents to go to the Freedom to Thrive website and read its report on policing.

“Learn what’s going on in your community and be prepared to do something about it,” Barnhart said.

Prior to the appointment of Curtis Lott, Barnhart was the sole Black person on CPOC. CPOC has come under criticism in the past for its lack of diverse membership. The village board directed village staff to review the responsibilities of the committee during a police reform discussion that took place in a June 22 meeting.

Barnhart rejects the idea that the Oak Park department is devoid of systemic racism because LaDon Reynolds, a Black man, is its chief.

“I think that’s very similar to the belief that when President [Barack] Obama was president, we were a post-racist society,” he said. “Oak Park has its own racial issues despite Reynolds being police chief.”

Reynolds declined an interview with the Journal, saying in an Aug. 3 email, “I don’t think my responding to an opinion piece in the Wednesday Journal, from a CPOC board member, would advance what I hope will be a civil discussion about the future of policing in Oak Park.”

Reynolds also stated he favors a more structured approach and is committed to a community conversation “that guides the actions of the men and women who serve the village as sworn officers.”

According to Barnhart’s op-ed, police have the legal authority to act on their racial biases and that “police adhere to a subjective ideology that is overly reliant on gut-feelings and hunches that traumatize Black people.”

The op-ed says the police department’s Guide to the Suspicious encourages citizens to call the police. The guide dictates that anything “that seems even slightly out of place or that is occurring at an unusual time of day could be criminal activity.” It also includes in its list of “not so obvious signs of suspicion” people waiting outside of homes and businesses when the owner is away. The Guide to the Suspicious is available on the village of Oak Park website.

The Guide to the Suspicious, Barnhart said, normalizes and legitimizes racial profiling. He also believes it is incumbent on citizens to refrain from acting on what he called “their worst impulses” to dial 911 at the drop of a hat.

“More importantly, ask yourself if you would call the police as readily on someone who is white?”

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