Photo by Javier Govea

The Oak Park village board has authorized the Oak Park Police Department to apply for three grants through the U.S. Department of Justice. Two of the grants are directly related to officer development, providing crisis intervention training and de-escalation training, respectively. The third would fund the development of an officer recruitment and retention pilot project.

Interim Police Chief Shatonya Johnson explained the police department’s need for the grants at the board’s June 6 meeting, sharing the three grants are entirely funded through the DOJ.

The de-escalation training, according to Johnson, will help Oak Park officers with situational awareness and to create strategies to “slow down the sequence of events” to properly assess threats, ensuring the safety of all individuals. If the grant is awarded, the DOJ will pay up to $250,000 for two years.

Technically a micro-grant, the officer recruitment and retention pilot program grant will seek to combat low staffing levels in the police department. It will also serve to diversify the department by broadening its recruitment efforts to offer employment opportunities for people from different backgrounds.

Both the de-escalation grant and the recruitment microgrant were approved via the board’s consent agenda and not discussed by the board. Trustee Lucia Robinson was absent from the meeting, but all present board members voted in favor of passing the consent agenda, including Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla in a somewhat unusual move. A vocal advocate for defunding police, she regularly votes against passing consent agendas when they include matters of policing.

The crisis intervention training grant was pulled from the consent agenda for board discussion by Walker-Peddakotla. The grant, per the board’s resolution, supports the implementation and development “of various model[s] of crisis intervention teams, including training for law enforcement officers in crisis intervention response.” Through the grant, the DOJ will fund that training up to a maximum of $350,000 for a duration of two years.

Currently about 58% of the department’s  officers are trained in crisis intervention, according to Johnson. Her goal is to have the entire department trained in crisis intervention to “properly identify individuals who are in crisis and not to criminalize their behavior but instead to ensure they get the necessary resources and help that they need.”

The intended purpose of using this grant, Village Manager Kevin Jackson told the board, is “not inconsistent” with the village’s aim to create an alternative response model to police calls. Rather, he said, the grant “bolsters” that aim. The training utilizes a trainee-to-trainer model, so that all officers are equipped with crisis intervention skills and can pass that knowledge on as new personnel joins the police department.

The comments from the interim police chief and the village manager did not assuage Walker-Peddakotla’s concerns that the police department was requesting board authorization to apply for the grant prior to the release of the report from BerryDunn, the consulting firm currently carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the police department.

BerryDunn’s Michele Weinzetl told the board earlier that evening that the firm was still in the process of finalizing research, developing data and formulating its recommendations. BerryDunn anticipates the final report will be completed by mid-September, which is a four-to-six-week delay from the original plan.

“We’ve been told that we have to wait for the BerryDunn report to come out in order to evaluate the need for a crisis response team,” Walker-Peddakotla said.

She was further against authorizing the police department’s application as the crisis intervention training grant involved “embedded behavioral or mental health professionals in crisis intervention,” which Walker-Peddakotla said was different than the model currently used by the police department in partnership with Thrive Counseling Center.

Part of BerryDunn’s assessment is researching and recommending potential alternative responses during mental health crises, which could include embedded behavioral and mental health professionals.

“If the rationale that has been told to me since the last election is that we should wait for BerryDunn to come through with their report then we should wait for BerryDunn to come through with their report and evaluate the use of embedded behavioral and mental health professionals in crisis prevention,” Walker-Peddakotla said.

Ultimately, she was the only board member to take that position. All but Walker-Peddakotla voted in favor of permitting the police department to apply for the grant.

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