Following Oak Park’s two “police listening sessions,” members of the Village Board of Trustees spoke with Wednesday Journal to share their thoughts on what they heard and the next steps the village should take to address racism.

“There are residents of Oak Park who have had really unfortunate and unacceptable interactions with the police that are classic examples of racial profiling,” said Trustee Susan Buchanan. 

Based on the experiences shared during the sessions, many trustees agreed that racial profiling is not exclusively a problem within the police department but a problem in the wider community, with some Oak Park residents dialing 911 on Black neighbors for matters unrelated to safety or crimes.

“Oak Park residents are the ones performing the racial profiling in a lot of cases,” said Buchanan. “It has to stop.”

Jameel Rafia, Johntia Williams and Chris Rooney were among session participants relating encounters where perceived racism and racial profiling came from members of the community. 

“We have a lot of people calling the police for no good reason,” said Trustee Deno Andrews. “I’ve heard story after story of people having the police called on them or their children.”

Trustee Simone Boutet agreed that many testimonials shared a common theme of racial profiling at the hands of neighbors and community members.

“It seems there’s an issue of people calling the police on people being Black,” said Boutet. “You could say walking while Black, driving while Black, being outside while Black.”

That community-based racial profiling makes simply going outside a risk for Black people, she added.

“That’s wrong,” said Boutet, noting she would have preferred more interactive listening sessions.

“I thought the process was odd,” she said.

Trustee Dan Moroney believes part of the racial profiling may come from the police department’s “Guide to the Suspicious,” which is posted on the village website. The guide directs residents to contact police over anything “that seems even slightly out of place or that is occurring at an unusual time of day [and] could be criminal activity.

“We need to look into the ‘Guide to the Suspicious.’ Maybe it’s outdated; maybe it’s causing more unintended consequences than we’d like,” he added.

While he knows there is relevancy in the points raised during the listening sessions, Moroney said Oak Park needs to include crime rates in police reform discussions.

“The fact of the matter is, there are over the past five years, 1,600 crimes committed on average,” he said, noting that he got that number from the village website.

“To ignore crime, to say that it’s not an issue, is doing residents a disservice.”

While she did not watch the sessions, Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla stated she read press coverage of the sessions and was not surprised by the content of the testimonials.

“These comments mirror some of the comments we’ve heard at the board table already,” said Walker-Peddakotla. “This why I think that the community listening sessions were necessary.”

She was “grateful” for the people who spoke during the sessions and those who have shared their experiences with police and racism previously.

“These are all experiences of trauma and they’re sharing it in a very public way,” she said. “That takes a lot of courage.”

Walker-Peddakotla would like to hear the Oak Park Police Department respond to these testimonials and the Freedom to Thrive statistics many people shared during the sessions.

Buchanan called addressing “innate” racism in the police department and the wider community “a huge challenge,” but a challenge worth taking on. To counteract people calling police over trivial matters, she would like to see changes in how the police department responds to those 911 calls.

“I think there should be some protocols that operators go through whereby they determine if there is an illegal activity taking place,” Buchanan said. “There should be some type of triaging of whether the person is actually performing an illegal act versus just looking suspicious.”

Buchanan also said she has learned a considerable amount through the village’s policing discussions and community listening sessions.

“For those of us who don’t experience negative interactions with the police, this is an eye-opener.”

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