For the past three Wednesdays, police consulting firm BerryDunn has hosted community forums for residents to share their views on how Oak Park can improve the equitability of its law enforcement. The sessions are part of a wider assessment of the village’s current policing model commissioned by the village board. Through the assessment, the village board also seeks to determine whether the village should shift established policing methods in favor of alternatives.
Alternative strategies include providing a non-police response to calls for service, a concept that has relatively recently become a major topic of conversation nationally. It was also the main topic of discussion at Oak Park’s most recent community policing meeting, held March 23 over Zoom and led by BerryDunn’s Michele Weinzetl.
“There have been various debates about which calls the police ought to consider not going to anymore, or maybe doing differently, or maybe through some other collaboration,” Weinzetl told attendees.
The non-police response tactic involves emergency operators diverting certain service calls away from police departments, such as connecting 911 callers experiencing mental health crises to clinical social workers or psychologists rather than to sworn officers.
“Some people that are in crisis are agitated by the fact that a police officer has come into the circumstance,” said Weinzetl.
As of 2022, emergency dispatchers in Illinois are required to coordinate callers seeking mental or behavioral health support to mobile mental and behavioral health resources, under the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act. The legislation is meant to reduce arrests of those with mental illnesses. The Oak Park Police Department’s partnership with Thrive Counseling Center long predates the state law but involves officers accompanying Thrive counselors on calls.
However, non-police responses are not only limited to mental health crises, as Weinzetl pointed out; a person experiencing homelessness might be connected to a shelter organization as opposed to a law enforcement agency. This scenario prompted one meeting attendee to voice some uncertainty.
“If you’re dealing with a homeless person – and you don’t know their background at all; you don’t know what their mental condition is – I would still feel better if there were police in the background,” said Anisha, whose last name was not listed on Zoom.
Police officers would not need to be in close proximity, she clarified, but near enough that they could respond should the situation escalate. Acknowledging that there is a risk of escalation in such situations, Weinzetl told her that the likelihood of that happening can be ascertained through “a good question and answer process” with the emergency dispatcher.
While Anisha was uncertain about the safety factors of a non-police response when it comes to strangers whose mental health histories are not known, she was open to the idea.
“I think in some circumstances it could work,” she said.
Not all of those who attended the meeting warmed to the idea of a non-police response. Bill, whose last name was also not listed on Zoom, shared his discomfort with its implementation in Oak Park. He said he could not find any benefit to a non-police response aside from the village possibly saving money on police payroll.
He also cited the rowdy funeral processions that travel through Oak Park. Last September, an Oak Park police officer shot at a vehicle involved in one of these funeral processions after it was reported one of the passengers was waving a handgun out of the vehicle. Weinzetl said that a non-police response would not be utilized under such circumstances, nor would it be used for violent criminal acts.
“This kind of process is not about stopping police response for instances that require it,” said Weinzetl.
Residents still have an opportunity to get involved in the local non-police response conversation. BerryDunn is facilitating another public forum March 31 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Barrie Center, 1011 S. Lombard Ave. Like the previous three meetings, the forum will not be recorded per the request of the BerryDunn. Representatives from BerryDunn believe recording would cause people to feel unsafe sharing their views, according to Oak Park spokesman David Powers.