Photo by Javier Govea

The Oak Park Village Board is not yet settled on BerryDunn or Hillard Heintze, the two firms it interviewed last July to facilitate an overall assessment of the training, accountability and community engagement practices of the Oak Park Police Department.

Trustees shared profoundly different opinions of the two firms during the Aug. 2 board meeting. Trustee Lucia Robinson favored BerryDunn, which suggests a co-production policing model, but Trustee Jim Taglia didn’t want Oak Park to serve as the model’s guinea pig and leaned toward Hillard Henitze, as did Trustee Ravi Parakkat.

Meanwhile, Trustee Chibuike Enyia thought each candidate qualified while Trustee Susan Buchanan was underwhelmed by both firms.

The strongest opinions came from Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who wanted to scratch the whole thing.

“Arti, I’m very sensitive that this is a very difficult topic for you, but we’re also really counting on your leadership here,” Village President Vicki Scaman told her.

Walker-Peddakotla has been resolutely unsupportive of hiring a consultant from the start, voting against the proposition when it was first presented to the previous village board at its June 22 meeting a year ago. She has maintained her stance, never wavering.

“My thoughts on this issue have not changed since we started discussing this topic,” said Walker-Peddakotla.

She said she had done extensive research into BerryDunn and Hillard Heintze in her capacity as an elected official but also as a law student. Walker-Peddakotla had much to say to the board, starting first with her problems with the request for proposal (RFP) itself.

“This process seems backward to me,” she said.

The village issued the RFP last October under the leadership of the previous village board. The language used in the RFP failed to reflect the goals of the current board.

“Were there other providers that could help us better address our — this board’s — goals who never even responded because this board’s goals weren’t put in that RFP?” she asked.

She said the village has not given “more progressive, forward-thinking” organizations a chance to respond. The ability of the current board to amend the RFP to align better with their goals she finds unsatisfactory.

“If the RFP is being amended, why not just let other people apply for this and see who else responds?” she asked.

Walker-Peddakotla also told the board she wanted to make the community the driving force in redefining community safety by having the village take into account the demands of police-reform activists.

To her, data-driven policing means more surveillance of Black and Brown communities. She listed the demands made by activists: the implementation of a non-emergency response team and a racial equity policy with accountability measures.

Walker-Peddakotla believes none of the firms who responded had the capability to carry out such demands. She reminded the board that she asked the BerryDunn and Hillard Heintze teams if they had ever recommended rerouting certain calls for services to organizations outside of the police.

“Neither said yes,” she noted, which called “alarming.”

Neither, however, gave her a firm negative either in response to her question at the July 12 meeting. Rob Davis, supervisor of the Hillard Heintze’s law enforcement consulting practice, agreed with Walker-Peddakotla that police are not always best suited for certain calls.

“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 Davis.

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

Walker-Peddakotla took issue with both firms employing former law enforcement professionals as reform consultants, a view she shared with Buchanan, and compared the situation to having gas company lobbyists direct the spending of sustainability funds.

“The CEO of Hillard Heintze is the former superintendent of Chicago’s police department and was the superintendent of Chicago’s police department when Jon Burge was there and torturing people,” she said.

Terry Hillard, a co-founder, not the firm’s CEO, was also not superintendent of the department during Jon Burge’s tenure on the force. Hillard became superintendent in 1998; Burge was fired in 1993. A famously disgraced ex-commander and detective, Burge reportedly tortured more than 100 criminal suspects, coercing them into making confessions.

Walker-Peddakotla also mentioned that former Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley worked for Hillard Heintze.

“This is not the right move,” she said.

Tanksley left the firm in 2018 to head security at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Parakkat told her he did not believe having former law enforcement officials was necessarily a bad thing, that the village could benefit from their knowledge of police operations.

To help the board make a more informed decision, Scaman directed staff to ask both firms to flesh out their plans for community engagement, as well as their ideas for alternative calls for service. Each trustee found that approach agreeable, except for Walker-Peddakotla, who told the village president, “Absolutely not.”

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