The village of Oak Park held the first of two virtual “police listening sessions” this morning where members of the community shared their experiences and interactions with the Oak Park Police Department. 

The listening sessions, moderated by assistant village attorney Rasheda Jackson, are part of the village board’s pledge to address racism associated with law enforcement.

“The purpose of these listening sessions is for Oak Park residents or anyone who has any type of experiences with Oak Park to share their story,” Jackson said at the beginning of the virtual meeting. 

Jackson added that the shared testimonials will guide village board discussions regarding how police can best serve the community. A second session will take place tomorrow evening at 7 p.m. Perhaps because the first session took place at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, only four people gave testimonials. 

Brian Straw, who gave the first testimonial, started off by stating that he is a white man living in northwest Oak Park. 

“In my personal experience, the Oak Park police have been respectful and professional, which is, of course, exactly what you’d expect to hear someone who looks like me say,” Straw said.

He added the village was likely to hear a lot more testimonials by other white people during the two listening sessions.

“I largely urge you to disregard them,” Straw said. “My experience as a white man does nothing to undermine the very real stories and data demonstrating a shocking pattern of racial profiling in Oak Park.”

He urged those listening to pay close attention to the testimonials shared by Black citizens, who likely have had very different experiences with police. 

Straw stated that 78 percent of all field stops initiated by Oak Park police were of Black individuals, a statistic found in the report compiled by local activist group Freedom to Thrive Oak Park using information obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

“This is at a time when 18 percent of our residents are Black,” Straw said. “More alarming, of the 94 field stops of boys under the age of 18, just children, 91 of them were of Black boys.”

Straw directed those watching the sessions to listen “especially keenly” to testimonials given by members of the Revolutionary Oak Park Action League (ROYAL) and other Black youth.

“There is nothing that my experience as a white resident can tell you about their experiences with racial profiling,” Straw concluded. “For that reason, I would urge you to ignore most of the experiences brought forth by people who look like me and instead focus your attention most keenly on those who don’t.”

Linda Valentine, an Oak Park resident since 1983, said in her testimonial that her first experience with Oak Park police had not been a good one. In that first encounter, Valentine was stopped by police while driving her Suburban sports utility vehicle down Ridgeland Avenue. 

“At the time, I had a teeny, weeny afro and probably looked male from a distance,” Valentine recounted. “The explanation I got for why I was pulled over was that Ridgeland was a boulevard and trucks are not allowed on boulevards.”

Valentine was driving a sports utility vehicle, not a truck. She said it was her first time experiencing racial profiling from Oak Park police.

However, Valentine expressed gratitude for the police department’s resident beat officer (RBO) program and praised Officer Traccye Love, who serves as the RBO in Valentine’s neighborhood. 

“I know probably governments have to see about cutting their budgets because of the times that we’re in,” Valentine said. “But if there’s one program that I would highly recommend the village keep, it would be the ROB program.”

Valentine stated that she appreciated those meetings because they allow residents to get to know police officers and to see how officers work and interact with the community.

Potential village board presidential candidate and Freedom to Thrive Organizer Cate Readling gave a testimonial during the first session, detailing three experiences with police. One of which involved her son. 

When her son was in seventh grade, Readling explained, he and three of his friends were involved in a “scuffle” with a darker skinned fourth boy, while walking home from school. 

“The fourth boy got a ticket from the SRO [school resource officer], who did not see the event,” said Readling, who described herself as “an often-white passing woman.”

According to her testimonial, the SRO tried to comfort Readling by telling her that her son was fine and not in trouble. 

“I was more concerned about the boy who got a ticket,” Readling said. “My kid is going to be absolutely fine no matter what; he’s a white passing male in this world.”

A woman of many relations, Readling said, she reached out to the chief of police and everyone she knew at the Oak Park Township and the Oak Park Public Library, and yet she still did not understand why this boy received a ticket.

“You are having those children experience the trauma of a punitive system,” Readling said. “That was frustrating to be told by the chief of police of that system, that process was considered restorative justice.”

During his testimonial, Jameel Rafia thanked the village for organizing the sessions but stated that more needed to be done to root out racism in Oak Park. 

“Years of institutionalized racism has given white people a sense of superiority,” Rafia said. “You give them a badge; you give them a gun; you give them a stick and you send them out in the community.”

Rafia described his experience with Oak Park police as one “met with sadness.”

“It’s something about my Black skin that activates their hate,” Rafia said of police officers.

He shared a particular instance when his young son and his friend wanted to rake leaves in their neighborhood. They went door to door, rakes in hand, asking neighbors if they could rake their leaves. 

“Someone on this block called the police on my son,” Rafia said.

Six police cars circled the two young Black boys and held them for 30 minutes, according to Rafia’s testimonial.

“What is it about Black skin that activates this hate in white police officers?” Rafia asked. 

Rafia also shared a time when he was riding his bike out of his garage and a police officer stopped him. The officer, Rafia said, told him there had been a string of garage burglaries in the area.

“No there hadn’t because I would have heard it from my beat officer,” Rafia said during the session.

The police officer asked Rafia why he was coming out of his garage and if he lived nearby. He also asked Rafia to show his identification. 

 “I stopped for a minute and took a deep breath because I wanted to make it home,” Rafia said.

Like Straw, Rafia referred to data found in the Freedom to Thrive policing report, indicating police stop Black people more often than they do white people.

“You can dislike me; you can dislike white people; but you cannot dispute the numbers,” he said. 

Rafia concluded his testimonial by saying that, although people are working for change, it will take time to reverse the deep-seated racism in the United States.

“Racism is baked into the cake of who America is.”

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