Oak Park Village Manager Kevin Jackson is putting together a new taskforce to explore alternative response models for police calls that do not necessarily require an armed presence. The news was announced at the village board’s Sept. 6 meeting during BerryDunn’s presentation of its evaluation of the Oak Park Police Department’s “essential calls for service” study.

“It is our expectation that we are actually going to be working with the community to mobilize a taskforce to study this issue and come up with some recommendations for the board to consider sometime this fall,” Jackson told the board.

While the taskforce’s work will be ongoing, it will initially prioritize alternative responses to mental health crisis calls. The cost of implementing the taskforce’s recommendation regarding mental health calls will depend on the recommendation, but $350,000 from the village’s general fund has already been earmarked for the expenses. Wednesday Journal has reached out to Jackson regarding who will sit on the taskforce.

The taskforce will build upon BerryDunn’s evaluation of alternative responses for youth, people experiencing homelessness and mental health calls, the latter involving most of the firm’s attention. The evaluation is part of BerryDunn’s wider assessment of the police department, which the law enforcement consulting firm is expected to release in full next month.

The three main response models were broken down for the board by BerryDunn’s Michele Weinzetl, who serves as project manager. Those three models are: the use of sworn police personnel specifically trained in crisis intervention; the employment of contracted agencies that operate largely independent of the police department, but police can engage if needed; and the operation of a hybrid, co-response model of police officers and mental health professionals or social workers.

Oak Park currently uses the hybrid model, which BerryDunn recommended it continue to use but expand upon. The police department has a partnership with Thrive Counseling Center to help handle its mental health calls. Interim Chief Shatonya Johnson told the board that the department is interested in exploring alternative response methods for certain calls but feels confident in its current approach.

“When it comes to mental health response, we think that we are doing a pretty good job of that. However, we are open to looking at other models, but currently our co-response model with Thrive, we feel is very effective,” she said.

It was deemed unsuitable by BerryDunn for Oak Park to outsource mental health calls completely. The number of those calls received by the department were so few that it would not be financially prudent to engage another agency to solely handle them.

“The volume [of calls for service] that you have does not support a full-time external model. And frankly, your overnight volume really would not support it even if it was something that was desired,” Weinzetl explained. “It would come at a significant expense and, in many cases, those personnel would be sitting idle.”

BerryDunn used the analysis of computer-aided dispatch data from the police department to determine the types of service calls for evaluation and quantify the level of annual work effort in full-time-equivalent sworn officer positions. Certain calls for service, such as armed robbery incidents, were omitted from the evaluation.

How to expand upon Oak Park’s hybrid approach and identifying the potential expense of doing so will fall to the taskforce to determine with input from the village board.

The taskforce will also consider the results of BerryDunn’s evaluation and the firm’s recommendations, such as the development of a method to categorize call types and the continuation of crisis intervention training for primary police response personnel. Approximately 58% of officers have already received crisis intervention training, according to Johnson, but that slowed down with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The police department has since applied for a grant to continue that training.

“Your model is working in a lot of respects,” said Weinzetl. “It should not be lost that Oak Park has been doing this for some time and successfully, but an opportunity to expand it does exist.”

Perhaps one of BerryDunn’s most significant recommendations regarding mental health calls is the establishment of a telephone response unit staffed by hired non-sworn officers that will cover two shifts per day. The non-sworn officers would also manage other in-person responses that do not require sworn officers. The development of policies and procedures for the telephone response unit, as well as training of personnel and the public in the new model, were also recommended.

The impetus behind the village board’s decision to engage BerryDunn arose in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a sworn Minneapolis police officer during the summer of 2020. The village board was reminded of this by Trustee Susan Buchanan, who also acknowledged that problems with law enforcement predated Floyd’s death.

“Not that our particular police department was out shooting unarmed people of color, but there still were some residents having negative interactions with police that they thought were based on their race or socioeconomic status and that Oak Park should lead in some of these major, major [policing] changes,” said Buchanan.

Where the calls for service evaluation fell short for Buchanan was the lack of definition of what constitutes conduct that is rowdy or suspicious. Both behaviors were used in BerryDunn’s evaluations findings. Buchanan wishes to see the calls reporting people exhibiting such behavior answered in the same way a mental health call would be answered — with an unarmed response.

The wording used in the evaluation came directly from what the computer-aided dispatch system uses, and BerryDunn opted not to change any of the language, according to Weinzetl, who agreed the terms “rowdies” and “suspicious” lacked sufficient clarity.

Beyond the costs associated with implementing a new model or growing Oak Park’s current model, the taskforce will explore training options, staffing needs and whether the village will need to enter into any new partnerships. This is expected to take “a period of months,” Weinzetl said; however, the goal of the taskforce is to return to the village board with a recommended plan of action before year’s end.

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