During my campaign for village trustee, I committed to community safety as a priority, as it must be for any well-functioning municipality. However, crime — crime involving guns in particular — has risen in Oak Park and, according to our police department, we are confiscating an illegal firearm locally on an average once a week.
At the same time, Oak Park has experienced over 10% attrition in our police force. According to officer exit interviews, the key reason for this attrition is the lack of support for our police department from elected officials and from the community at large. This attrition is particularly concerning given that effective policing will continue to be an important part (but not the only part) of any community safety solution. Hence keeping and attracting the best police officers for Oak Park is crucial. This is difficult to achieve if the community is viewed as undermining and undervaluing the services that police can provide. Oak Park wants to attract community-minded, service-oriented individuals to our police department to keep all of Oak Park’s residents safe.
I truly understand the legitimate outrage people feel as bias in policing actions disproportionately impacts Black and Brown lives. I also understand the history of distrust leading up to the murder of George Floyd and other national events involving police brutality. However, outrage is useful only if it spurs us to actually deliver different and positive outcomes. Ultimately, we all want everyone in our community safe without bias and prejudice.
Oak Park exists in the middle of a country that has shown itself unwilling to legislate any meaningful gun reform, a nation unable to address widening socio-economic disparities. While crime always has been a part of human history, these social factors, exacerbated by the pandemic, further breed and enable violent crime. There is very little Oak Park — or any single community — can do to address national problems in the short term. However, we can and should influence the national debate through realistic solutions that work for us and potentially can be replicated in communities across the nation. But none of this happens overnight.
In the frustrating absence of national changes, let’s acknowledge the reality that our local police department, a pioneer in community policing, plays a vital role in keeping us safe. They cannot do this without our support. The police department is made up of people like you and me. People with families, people of all colors, people who are our neighbors. So I encourage each of you to voice your support for them.
Now does this mean that the Oak Park Police Department is perfect? Of course not. Do we need to hold individual officers and the department at large accountable in case they exhibit bias in their actions? Absolutely. Do we need to explore ways to improve and evolve our community safety approaches (e.g. mental health response)? For sure. This is the reason the Oak Park Village Board has commissioned an independent consulting firm to assess and make recommendations on this complex and important topic. We look to their findings to form the basis for thoughtful deliberation and decision at the board table in the coming months, replacing mere outrage and frustration.
Meanwhile, I encourage the community — including our elected leaders and opinion builders — to consider carefully the long-term implications of our current words and arguments. Are they really making us safer, or are we just making political statements? We don’t have to disparage our police department to make a case for other solutions that help us create a safer community for our children. Let’s explore these ideas with the understanding that good solutions can co-exist and complement each other. Let’s reject the voices of a small but vocal minority that has weaponized this topic to divide us and come together to seek the right combination of solutions to keep our community safe today and tomorrow.
Ravi Parakkat is an Oak Park Village Board trustee.