Shatonya Johnson, Oak Park police chief (Village of Oak Park)
Kevin Jackson, Oak Park Village Manager | Provided

When Kevin Jackson became Oak Park village manager last March, on his first official day on the job, Police Chief LaDon Reynolds tendered his resignation, leaving the new village manager with the unenviable task of hiring a new chief while learning his new job.

“We had a lot of senior staff kind of in transition,” Jackson recalled.

Reynolds, who is now a U.S. Marshal, ended his tenure as police chief April 15. One of his two deputies, Shatonya Johnson, immediately assumed the role in an interim capacity. On Oct. 25, her appointment was made permanent. She officially begins as chief Nov. 7, when she returns from vacation.

“Despite having some quality candidates, I think that we got the best candidate right here in the village,” Jackson said of the new chief.

Shatonya Johnson, Oak Park police chief (Village of Oak Park)

Back in April, however, it was not always clear to Jackson that he would appoint Johnson as chief of the Oak Park Police Department. Johnson certainly had experience, having been with the department for 23 years, beginning as a patrol officer in 2000 and rising through the ranks to become neighborhood resource officer, juvenile specialist, detective, internal affairs sergeant, detective, commander and deputy chief. She is also the only woman in the department’s history to achieve deputy status and has a master’s degree in organizational behavior and organizational development from Benedictine University, on top of a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement administration from Western Illinois University.

It came as no surprise then to people acquainted with Johnson when she was made interim chief. Except Jackson and Johnson were barely acquainted with each other at the time he appointed her. They had all but just met.

“Frankly, I had only been in the village a few weeks before I did that and so I was still getting to know Shatonya,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t clear who we would ultimately be selecting.”

To ensure that he was casting a wide net to attract the best possible candidates for the role, Jackson enlisted the recruitment services of GovHR, the same firm that brought Jackson to the village during its village manager search.

Jackson did not need village board approval to engage the recruitment firm. The village manager has the authority to spend up to $25,000; the village board must sign off on purchases exceeding that amount. The police chief recruitment contract, according to Jackson, did not surpass his spending authority.

Much time was spent with GovHR in creating the profile for the position. The village board provided its input on the qualities members wished to see in a police chief, as did Jackson. Internal surveys were conducted of police personnel and village staff. All that feedback was reflected in the construction of the position profile, which Jackson estimated took a total of 60 days.

From there, GovHR conducted a national search, with the firm reaching out to various networks throughout the country. The job was also posted online and plugged into different groups and associations in and outside the state, Jackson said.

 The national search produced a group of 19 qualified candidates, 11 of whom came from Illinois. Jackson called the pool of candidates “really diverse.”

“We had, I think about nine people of color and three female applicants.”

The process, according to Jackson, was very positive. The applicants were reviewed, short listed and interviewed. The village board was not involved in reviewing applications or interviewing candidates. Johnson was the preferred contender.

“There was a joint acknowledgement between GovHR and myself that she was the top candidate for the job,” said Jackson.

Johnson said in a village news release she was honored and humbled to serve as the department’s first female police chief. She was unable to be interviewed at this time due to her previously planned vacation, which Jackson called “well-deserved.”

“I can tell you she hasn’t gotten a break since she started April 14 as interim,” said Jackson.

What put Johnson above the other applicants was not just her 22 years of experience working in “progressive, responsible” positions within the Oak Park police, but her performance as interim chief. She took on the role headfirst and Jackson said he was able to evaluate her work over the past six months.

“She served as interim capacity during a very difficult time and without a complete command staff and made some significant progress on some very significant issues,” Jackson said.

A certified negotiator of 15 years, Johnson and the police department were able to bring about a peaceful end to the recent standoff on Harlem Avenue Oct. 14 The incident ended without injury after 18 and a half hours.

Jackson praised the chief for her oversight in the murder investigation of Jailyn Logan-Bledsoe, as well as her work in trying to establish an end to 24-hour gas stations as a preventative measure against further violent crimes. All the while, she has continued to lead and manage the police personnel and the operations of the police department.

“She has been going and going and going and going practically around the clock,” said Jackson.

 The new chief has a long history of public service prior to her career in law enforcement. Before she joined Oak Park’s police force, she was a case manager with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. She also worked as a correctional officer at the Will County Jail and as a patrol officer for the Cook County Forest Preserves. Johnson even taught for a while as an adjunct professor of juvenile justice at MacCormac College, now known as Generations College.

“At the end of the day, we’re very fortunate to have had an internal candidate with her qualifications,” Jackson said. “Not every police department in America has that advantage.”

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