It took three months, June 22 to Sept. 29, for a majority of the Oak Park Village Board to articulate that its confusing and scattered “decision” of early summer to hire an outside consultant to evaluate the police department was ill considered.

The overdue clarity came in another contested village board meeting last week when the village staff offered up a proposed Request for Proposals for the services of a consultant to study the department. That Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said the work could be completed by the first quarter of 2021 and would cost just $25,000 is only the latest indication that this divided village board is fully lost on how to thoughtfully, aggressively address policing issues in the months after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. 

There was an opportunity back then for Oak Park to lead on this complex issue of rethinking public safety and community policing. But the ingrained tensions and suspicions among board members and the mayor made a conversation requiring trust and open minds immediately impossible. 

Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb could not successfully engage with more progressive voices on the board — Trustees Walker Peddakotla, Buchanan and Boutet. That failing is largely, not exclusively but largely, on him.

His instinct that the village had to act led him to unilaterally sign on to an initiative from the Obama Foundation to take action on reviewing use-of-force policies in departments across the nation. Not a bad idea but one that, if actua l conversations had taken place, would have surfaced a rare base of agreement between strong backers of the local department and its critics that use of force is happily not a huge concern in Oak Park.

With a divided board, he could not effectively lead on this issue, so the mayor turned fast to the notion that a third-party review of the whole department by an academically credentialed consultant would sidestep the contentiousness on his board and lead to some sort of actionable recommendations.

And so on June 22 in one of the most Zoomed-up, dumbed-down public meetings ever, the board took some action, in some way toward a consultant. As we said at the time, the board really had no idea in the moment what it had approved. And the only direction it provided to staff was vague and conflicting.

We don’t often argue with Trustee Jim Taglia but his comments last week that the board had consensus in June and should not flip-flop in September was rose-colored revisionist history.

There was nothing approaching consensus in June. There were sharp divisions among board members on next steps. And the mayor’s determination to bring the meeting to a close with a vote of some sort on something was hanging paper over a fractured elected body.

Last week’s meeting also did not come to a viable conclusion. Four trustees opposed the hiring of a consultant to review the police department. Those four voices were not perfectly aligned except in their opposition. And there were three voices opposing a “do over” and sort of directing the manager to move ahead in issuing the RFP.

There will be no positive outcome from pursuing that course.

That said, Trustee Simone Boutet’s suggestion that the board ask Police Chief LaDon Reynolds to conduct his own review of the department is stunningly tone deaf. We admire Reynolds’ brains and gut on policing issues. Not sure why that talent has, so far, been put under a basket as the chief has a lot to bring to this conversation. But it is not his department to solely review.

The starting point is obvious but likely not possible in this lame-duck political season. Listening is the starting point. Listening to every voice, valuing every voice is how reform begins. We’re not optimistic this will happen with the sitting board. We’re not optimistic that it can be well debated during the spring 2021 campaign.

What is just ahead, critically ahead, for this current board is the negotiation of a new contract with police officers. Police unions, nationally and in our own Lodge, are the often invisible obstacle to transparency and culture change in policing. This board’s greatest opportunity to have impact is to hang very tough on this contract when it comes to matters of discipline of officers, transparency in reviewing police conduct and remaking the current citizen oversight process. 

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