Oak Park’s village board made a step forward in its plans to eradicate systemic racism in its police department during its July 12 meeting. Representatives from two consulting firms, BerryDunn and Hillard Heintze, were interviewed by the board to conduct a full audit of the Oak Park Police Department. 

“The only reason for this [request for application] is because of the racial reckoning among many whites and white-entities that occurred since murder of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police,” Trustee Susan Buchanan told both firms.

The two firms were selected for interview following the issuance of the request for application last September. Both BerryDunn and Hillard Heintze have considerable experience assisting different towns and cities in matters of police reform. Each also employs former law enforcement officials.

 The former firm has worked with the village of Oak Park on two previous projects, as well as provided services in all 50 states and in Canada. The latter is the sole provider of law enforcement consulting for U.S Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services’ Collaborative Reform Initiative and Technical Assistance. Hillard Heintze has worked with police departments in such major cities as Miami, Seattle, Baltimore and Louisville, Ky., following the death of Breonna Taylor. 

Each firm advocates for a collaborative approach to police reform, involving the public, elected officials, stakeholders and police personnel. BerryDunn’s presentation placed great emphasis on the firm’s use of data-driven analysis, but each rely on cultivating qualitative and quantitative data to develop recommendations. 

BerryDunn is based in Maine but promised to work with the village to schedule on-site meetings. Conversely, Hillard Heintze is headquartered in Chicago. Its office is downtown on South Wacker Drive.

“I’m from the area, so I know Oak Park,” said Hillard Heintze’s Sydney Roberts. 

If the village board chooses Hillard Heintze as its consulting firm, Roberts would serve as on-site project manager. She shared with the board her understanding of the unique position Oak Park is in bordering Chicago, Maywood and River Forest.

Bob Boehmer, vice president of Hillard Heintze, told the board he grew up a block away from Oak Park and three of the five-member team that would assist Oak Park live locally.

The plan to audit the police department was inherited from the previous village board, which committed to hiring an independent third-party consultant in June 2020. Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla was the sole vote against hiring a consultant.

Now in the middle of her term, Walker-Peddakotla’s views on the matter were largely unchanged, which she made clear to the Hillard Heintze representatives.

“I’ll be very clear that I was against, and I think I still am against the hiring a consultant for this,” she said. 

Walker-Peddakotla shared her concern that a consultant would not address her desire to have certain calls for service handled outside of the police force. She asked representatives of both firms whether, in any of their previous projects with other municipalities, they recommended having the police stop responding to such calls and instead having those calls handled “entirely” by mental health or public health responders.

Representatives from neither firm gave a simple response to the Walker-Peddakotla’s yes-no question.

“We definitely believe that there are any number of calls that are being handled by police departments across this country because they’ve historically handled them that are better handled by other agencies,” said Rob Davis, senior vice president of Hillard Heintze and the supervisor the firm’s law enforcement consulting practice.

Davis added that many times, non-police agencies feel safer having a police officer accompany their employees when responding to calls.

BerryDunn’s Michele Wienzetl, who would serve as project manager, told Walker-Peddakotla that the firm would merely present the information to the board and allow them to make the determination. 

“We would only ask the questions and let you evaluate what you want to move if anything,” said Wienzetl.

During the Hillard Heintze interview, Walker-Peddakotla said community members have already made several comments regarding police reform during previous village board meetings and at the two police listening sessions the village held last August.

“None of those comments were ever taken seriously nor were they followed up on,” she said. “The community hasn’t been listened to for two years and well before that.”

Walker-Peddakotla wanted to know more about how Hillard Heintze planned to integrate the experiences and wishes of the public into its processes and recommendations.

Boehmer told her that Hillard Heintze deals with that situation often and particularly when working recently in Louisville. When forming recommendations, he said, information gleaned from interviews is included, so the public sees actionability.  

“We’re going to reflect those voices in a final report and make sure those voices also turn into those recommendations,” said Boehmer.

While Village President Vicki Scaman agreed that it was time more members of the Oak Park community felt heard, she said several of the people working for the village, as well as the members of the village board, care deeply about eliminating systemic racism in law enforcement and have “for a long time.”

“It speaks to exactly why we want to lead a conversation in our community that is responsive to the needs of everybody who lives here,” Scaman said.

Village Manager Cara Pavlicek told the board that staff will return with a date to continue the conversation regarding BerryDunn and Hillard Heintze. Pavlicek, who will be leaving her position next month, called both firms “very qualified” with “unique approaches.”

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