Joe Mendrick

There has been a lot of talk lately about police reform in Oak Park, but this isn’t the first time. 

In the 1980s, the department went through two very public, high-profile probes amidst charges of brutality (covered extensively by this newspaper in its early days). In both cases, the police chiefs at the time departed and Deputy Chief Joe Mendrick stepped in as acting chief. In 1990, he was named permanent chief of police, serving until he retired in 2001.

Mendrick turned the Oak Park Police Department around. Police are now respected in this village and enjoy widespread support. But that doesn’t mean the department isn’t in need of reform. Police departments are always in need of reform. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis cop in 2020, and myriad other killings of unarmed people of color by police around the country, many are calling for changes in policing. 

That’s not just the opinion of radicals. Joe Mendrick died in 2016, but if he were alive today, he would agree. In fact, he said so when I interviewed him back in 2000. 

What he said was remarkable — and is even more timely 21 years later. His comments should be required reading by police departments in every American municipality.

“If you look at the problems they’re having in L.A., Chicago and other major cities,” Mendrick said back then, “they’re putting the finger on bringing in too many people too quickly and not training them. That was a problem in this organization.”

The Oak Park Police Department, he noted, doubled in size in the mid-’70s. Many of those new recruits (60-plus in a single year) were recent Vietnam vets, he recalled. Some had issues. They weren’t screened and they weren’t adequately trained. 

Not surprisingly, there were problems. When Mendrick became permanent chief in 1990, this newspaper was skeptical at first, thinking he was too “inside” to turn things around. Turns out he was exactly the right person at precisely the right time.

“The main thing you’ve got to remember,” Mendrick said, looking back on his 11-year tenure as chief, “is that we are accountable to the public. Police, in general, are not trusted. That’s why you have the Constitution. They put reins on us.” 

It’s amazing how many police officers in other cities apparently still don’t understand this. Their attitude seems to be, as Mendrick put it, “We’re the police. We can do what we want.”

Under Mendrick, that attitude changed. Oak Park was one of the first departments nationwide to institute a Field Training Officer (FTO) program to work with new recruits.

“We really screened our people,” he said. “They’re trained. Turning ’em loose on the street to run and gun, that’s out.”

Oak Park was also one of the first towns to embrace community policing, which Mendrick said was a real turning point in the 1990s. He remembered the lessons he learned when he was a young cop in the late-’60s, early-’70s, working the streets of Oak Park. Lessons about building trust.

“It’s not too hard to tell somebody why you stopped them,” he said. “It’s not too hard when you walk by somebody to say hi. It’s not too hard to listen. It’s not too hard to be empathetic. And it’s not that difficult to change. You’ve got to be willing to understand that people will question. You’ve got to accept that, and if you don’t, you’re not going to go anyplace.”

Mendrick was willing to change and the department did go someplace. It became a model. How did Mendrick change things? Transparency.

“We opened the doors,” he said. “Come and see what we do. We were a closed environment before that. We opened up, not only to the newspaper but to the public. … When we have problems, we’re open about them. When officers have trouble, they go before the board [of Police and Fire Commissioners]. … We’re held to a higher standard, and I believe in that. An organization is based on ethics, period. Do the right thing. We’re not in an occupation that is conducive to forgiveness. If there’s something in the organization or atmosphere that’s not up to the standards of the way law enforcement has to operate in today’s society, then you leave.”

I can’t help wondering how many police chiefs in other communities, even today, would so freely espouse that.

“We opened our arms to the community and said, ‘What’s important to you? Where do you want us to put our resources and for what? We’re willing to discuss it with you. We don’t know all the answers.’”

Mendrick put the “servant” back in public servant. 

“You realize that you’re just a community service organization,” he said, “even though you are responsible.”

And that has been the model in Oak Park ever since. It was carried on by Mendrick’s successors, Rick Tanksley, Tony Ambrose and now LaDon Reynolds. Do the Oak Park police need reminding occasionally and does the model need updating? Of course, and that requires community input. But the core principles are intact, as articulated by a remarkable police chief named Joe Mendrick:

“We are accountable to the public.”

“We don’t know all the answers.”

“It’s not that difficult to change.” 

“Do the right thing.”

Can that model be used everywhere? Some will say, “Oh no, it’s too dangerous in the inner cities.” What’s really dangerous, we now know all too well, is conducting law enforcement in an adversarial way, based on mutual mistrust.

Mendrick aspired to create a police department that is open, responsive, and above all, listening. Last week in Viewpoints, Village Trustee Ravi Parakkat called for taking a “supportive” approach to police reform, while a group of concerned citizens called for specific reforms. 

Chief Reynolds is expected to move into federal law enforcement next year. If his successor follows the Mendrick “blue” print of responsive, responsible change, we’ll be OK.

“You’re as good as the people around you,” Mendrick said in 2000. “What I try to do is find people I have faith in — their values. That’s what I look for in people — values, period. You can teach anybody to be a policeman. What you need to be is a good person.”

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