Some years back, a high-ranking official in the Oak Park Police Department offered me his long view of the department’s history on race and how it played out on the streets of the village.
His starting point was the 1970s when Oak Park first began to recognize that the astoundingly quick resegregation of the West Side — 90 percent of white people bolted, Blacks moved in — was heading toward Oak Park.
In the rosy-glassed version of that era, Oak Park did 5-10 visionary things that allowed it to make the risky attempt to become a truly racially integrated community. Open Housing. Housing Center. Redistricting the elementary schools. Residence Corporation buying apartment buildings to keep them integrated. Economic investments in commercial areas and housing stock. Hired a PR firm to “tell the story.” Added a Community Relations Department to village hall.
And, less remembered, doubled the size of the Oak Park Police Department.
So in very short order a whole lot of cops were hired. This was still the olden days. A high school education was plenty. Being local was an advantage. And, obviously, mostly white and male.
Painting the police cars orange and white, along with every other vehicle in the village’s fleet, suddenly made for the perception of a much more visible and active public safety presence. And white Oak Parkers liked it a lot.
I don’t want to, and the cop I talked with did not want to, paint this super-sized police department with too broad a brush. But it is true that police departments come to reflect the communities they serve. And for all of Oak Park’s genuine progressive bonhomie, it always came with a giant side of “protect us from the West Side.”
That explains the cul-de-sacs all along Austin Boulevard. It explains the active othering of Austin, a neighborhood that when it was Irish, German, Italian and Greek, was our sister community.
The point this official made 30 years after the hiring binge that brought the force to well over 100 officers was that it was, at that point, the end of the waiting game — waiting for this cohort of officers to retire, to allow a different, more diverse, more educated, more open group of officers to be hired and to allow a new generation of cops to be promoted up the ranks.
I believe a lot of progress has been made toward those worthy goals. There are more Black, Brown and female officers, more of them in leadership. It is what has made this department better than average. And maybe a little better than that.
The point is that police departments, like other organizations — though police departments are unique in ways good and pretty bad — evolve. They change slowly in response to outside stimulus.
Right now, finally, in America there is a lot of outside stimulus demanding that policing change dramatically. And even with internal and external protectors of the status quo pushing back hard, there is change coming. We saw it this month in Springfield where a criminal justice reform package was passed. Not perfect, but it focused on goals that would have been unthinkable not long ago.
Here in Oak Park, we’re stuck and worse than stuck. We’re fighting the wrong battle and using the wrong words. We need to talk and all we do is hurl insults. We need to lead and reinvent and re-engage and instead we divide and defend.
It is a long way to April’s election.