“If they watched, they did as private citizens and were not required to notify me or the village,” Police Chief LaDon Reynolds wrote in an Aug. 6 email to Wednesday Journal.
Described as an opportunity for “anyone who has any type of experiences with Oak Park to share their story” by session moderator and Assistant Village Attorney Rasheda Jackson, the listening sessions were a part of the village board’s pledge to address racism associated with law enforcement.
The village board intends to use the testimonials shared to guide conversations future conversations.
“The listening sessions were designed to take place without the police being involved to foster an environment of openness and candor,” Reynolds said in an email. “There was no one assigned to participate.”
It is unclear if Reynolds himself watched.
Johntia Williams, who participated in the second session, asked Jackson point blank who the listeners were on the session before beginning her testimonial.
“It’s being broadcast on our village’s [TV] channel,” Jackson responded. “It’s also going to be archived on the village’s website.”
Jackson did not share whether any trustees or village staff had tuned in, but she may not have known who watched.
The community members who shared stories of past interactions with Oak Park police had varying levels of satisfaction. Descriptions of police behavior and attitudes ranged from professional and respectful to dismissive, flippant and unresponsive.
Chris Rooney, an Oak Park resident of about 25 years, called his experiences with police in Oak Park “pretty good, not great” in his testimony given in the Aug. 6 session. Rooney said he believed racism in policing stems reflects racism in the wider community.
Rooney, who is Black, shared an experience from about 10 years ago when he was out at night with a flashlight looking for his girlfriend’s dog and someone called the police on him.
“It was just an instance of the police being called in response to what the residents thought was a threat,” said Rooney.
Rooney shared another instance in which he said he was profiled by a Black police officer. While on his way to a friend’s house, Rooney was driving very slowly looking at the addresses to find that of his friend. A squad car pulled him over just as he found his friend’s house.
“Any Black person develops kind of a ‘spider sense’ when you know you’re going to get pulled over,” Rooney said.
Altogether, Rooney called his experiences “predominantly good” and stated he had experienced worse treatment in other places, but said Oak Park has “manufactured diversity” that is not always “truly inclusive.”
Some of the speakers cited statistics indicating police racial biases taken from a report compiled by activist group Freedom to Thrive Oak Park, using information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Johntia Williams’ testimony included a 2016 statement of complaint, which she titled “Does my Black safety matter in Oak Park?” against an officer “Hawkinson.” Williams reported the officer for displaying unprofessional, disrespectful conduct during an incident in which a man she said threatened to attack her with his pit bull as she was going to pick up her child from daycare. With no witnesses around, Williams felt extremely unsafe.
Williams said the man “unleashed his dog, whistled and gestured the dog toward” her; the dog came within 10 feet of Williams while the owner just watched. However, the police officer reportedly chalked it up to a misunderstanding based on the dog owner’s words.
Williams said she would never irrationally call the police on an unleashed dog. She said she called the police for protection but received “apathy” and “disrespect.”
“Officer Hawkinson displayed no compassion, no sensitivity or empathy for what I’d just experienced,” said Williams. “He dismissed my concerns as a misunderstanding.”
When Williams asked the officer, “If it were truly an accident, why didn’t [the man] apologize?” Williams was told the man did proffer an apology.
“Officer Hawkinson, who obviously was not there when it took place, responded by telling me that maybe I simply didn’t hear his apology,” Williams said.
The man was issued a ticket for not leashing his dog, but Williams wanted him arrested for using his dog to threaten her. Williams said the officer reprimanded her, while trading dog stories with the offender.
Williams’ claim against the officer was ruled “unsubstantiated.”
Oak Park resident Emily Neumann said the Oak Park Police Department was consistently unresponsive to her and her lawyer after Neumann reported she was raped in her home by a man she knew. The period of unresponsiveness spanned two years.
“I was wronged by the Oak Park Police Department,” said Neumann, who is not Black.
After Neumann went to the hospital, she was escorted home by two female officers who collected evidence. A week later, Neumann felt ready to press criminal charges against the man who assaulted her and called the detective on the case.
“No one called me back,” Neumann said.
Calls made by Neumann’s lawyer also went unanswered and unreturned. An entire year passed, and Neumann still had not heard from the police.
Neumann’s lawyer sent a formal letter to the police, but still received no response.
“From then on, my lawyer called on a regular basis,” said Neumann, who added police still did not respond.
“At this point in typing up this testimony, I literally just highlighted and copied the phrase ‘we received no response’ because it’s about to be used a lot,” Neumann said.
Eight and a half months after police were notified of Neumann’s desire to press charges, police contacted Neumann. A detective told Neumann’s lawyer of plans to follow up on the case.
The responses stopped again. Until months later, Neumann was told the detective on the case had retired and her case wasn’t reassigned.
“One year after the Oak Park Police Department was notified in writing and two years after my original call to them, an active detective was finally on my case,” said Neumann.
Finally, when Neumann was interviewed in the department by an assistant state’s attorney, the man who raped her was in another room “20 feet away.”
Neumann was assured by the detective and assistant state’s attorney that they believed her.
“The following day I was notified that no charges would be brought against the man who raped me,” Neumann said.
Neumann’s story, she said, was the norm for sexual assault survivors who seek law due process against those who assault them.
“I’m speaking up because I want to sprinkle the water of truth on the wicked witch that is the police response to sexual assault,” Neumann said.
Brian Straw, who spoke first during the in the first listening session, 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 testimony 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 residents, 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.
“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.”
Like Straw, Judith Alexander said in her experience, police officers in Oak Park were professional and polite. She mentioned that police officers had caught the people who burglarized her home.
“I recognize that there are issues with profiling,” Alexander said.
She asked that those who “are looking at this issue to please not do anything that would jeopardize public safety.”
During his testimony, 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.
“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.
The police officer reportedly 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 testimony 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.”