In the last two years, 15 patrol officers have left the Oak Park Police Department. Nine resigned, five retired and one was terminated, according to police roster records. There are currently 13 patrol officer vacancies and two open commander spots in the department.
During a rare interview with Wednesday Journal, Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds shared his belief that societal changes are behind the drop in staffing. How work is viewed in the United States has shifted with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Policing is no different,” said Reynolds.
While Wednesday Journal was unable to obtain exit interview information through open records requests, Reynolds said he believes officers are leaving for a combination of reasons, including the desire to work from home and to have a better work-life balance. He also cited civil unrest and political conversations around policing as contributing factors.
“The dialogues that have occurred at the national level as it relates to policing have all converged and created this space that we’re in,” said Reynolds.
Last November, Village Trustee Ravi Parakkat submitted an opinion piece to Wednesday Journal in which he beseeched the Oak Park community to more actively support its police department.
“According to officer exit interviews,” Parakkat wrote, “the key reason for this attrition is the lack of support for our police department from elected officials and from the community at large.”
Reynolds’ take, however, differed from Parakkat’s. The chief conceded that “at least a couple” officers mentioned the perceived lack of support by the community as a factor that played into their decision to resign, but that it was hardly the only reason given.
“I think the industry of policing in America is going through a transformation,” said Reynolds.
Demands for equitable law enforcement reform and financial considerations may be the reason behind some resignations, he said. In addition, other suburban departments and out-of-state police agencies are recruiting officers, offering bonuses to make lateral moves between departments, according to Reynolds. Officers may just be exploring new opportunities that were not available in the past.
“We didn’t see this a lot when I came on back in the ‘90s, but again, I think we’re in a transition,” said the chief.
Kira Tchang, human resources manager for the village of Oak Park, said the village has not offered bonuses to entice outside officers to join the Oak Park police force.
Oak Park does not currently have a formal program in place for lateral hires, but Tchang said the idea is being explored by the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners as a part of the commission’s 2022 work plan. The commission is still in the early stages of the discussion.
“The Board of Fire and Police Commissioners is interested in implementing a program for lateral hires, especially given the current challenges in entry-level police recruitment, but recognizes there can be associated risks with bringing on officers who are trained in other departments,” said Tchang.
For the most part, Oak Park rookie cops go through the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy and the Chicago Police Training Division. The Suburban Law Enforcement Academy caps its classes at 84 trainees.
COVID-19 necessitated fewer people per class for a time, but the academy is back to class sizes of 84, according to the academy’s spokesperson Patricia Augustin. Wednesday Journal did not receive a response prior to press time to a request for similar information from the Chicago Police Training Division.
A formal lateral hiring program could include a different application and hiring process, as well as additional support and training to help integrate new officers into the Oak Park force, according to Tchang. Whether such a program will be implemented will ultimately be up to the village board.
The Oak Park Police Department still has the capability of hiring laterally without a formal program. Commander Paul Kane joined the Oak Park Police Department in June 2020. Kane had spent 31 years with the Chicago Police Department.
“I just felt like I had given everything I could to Chicago, and it was time for me to move on,” said Kane.
During his last five years in Chicago, Kane worked in the 19th District, which included Lakeview, which includes Wrigley Field. He retired from CPD as a commander and was hired in Oak Park at that same rank.
“Basically, when I came in, I came in as a brand-new employee,” said Kane. “I had to learn Oak Park’s policies and Oak Park’s procedures and learn the different nuances.”
The types of crimes that occur in the village reminded Kane a lot of the 19th District, as did Oak Park’s community policing model. The latter has also attracted other officers to the Oak Park department, according to Reynolds.
“I’ve had a couple of officers state directly that they came here because of the type of police department that we are,” said Reynolds. “We have a reputation for community policing, officer safety, officer wellness.”
In the last six months, Reynolds has received emails from two outside officers interested in joining the Oak Park force.
Whether lateral hires will fill the police department’s 15 vacancies remains to be seen. Oak Park currently has 79 active sworn patrol officers and 18 sergeants, which Reynolds is capable of addressing the needs of citizens.
It is also unusual for departments to be fully staffed at all times. In Reynolds’ career, there have only been “a few times” where the Oak Park department had a full roster of officers, he said.