Oak Park Police | Photo by Javier Govea

In a detailed consultant’s report more than a year in preparation the Oak Park police department received some praise but also detailed criticism and recommendations across a range of complex issues including its approach to police stops, inadequate capacity to track and use data collected, a too modest and non-strategic training program, chronic understaffing and recruitment and retention failings and significant internal communication and engagement efforts with its officers.

The report also dinged the village government for the dismal condition of the police headquarters in the basement of village hall on Madison Street.

The report from BerryDunn, a consulting firm with strong ties to former law enforcement officials, also made direct reference to the similarities of its data analysis to that provided the village in 2020 by local volunteers in the Freedom to Thrive organization. However, in key areas the conclusions drawn from the data varied between the police consulting firm and the group of community organizers.

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“There’s a little bit of a variation in terms of categorization within the different types, but what we see from the numbers in terms of the different races is quite identical to what the folks from Freedom to Thrive came up with,” said BerryDunn’s Michele Weinzetl at the Nov. 14 village board meeting.

BerryDunn’s report recommended increasing police resources to combat the problems identified in its report, including updating police department facilities, acquiring better data management systems to increase transparency and budgeting for more officers. The department currently has 99 sworn officers, but the budget allows for 117 officers.  BerryDunn recommended raising that number to 125 to get ahead of ongoing attrition. Freedom to Thrive has advocated for the direct opposite in terms of police staffing levels.

The two reports did have one strong conclusion in common: The Citizen Police Oversight Commission should be granted greater investigative authority into complaints made by the public against Oak Park police officers. BerryDunn took it further by suggesting the village implement an appeal process.

“It’s minimally effective,” Weinzetl said of CPOC.

The similarity in the data compiled by BerryDunn and Freedom to Thrive was particularly striking in regard to police stops made between 2015 and 2018. Freedom to Thrive found that 78% of people stopped by local police during those years were Black males. For BerryDunn, that figure was 76.7%. The consulting firm used the same dataset used by Freedom to Thrive to see how it would align with the numbers pulled by BerryDunn. The firm found that percentage decreased slightly during the years of 2019 through 2021; 72.3% of the people stopped by OPPD were Black males.

Arti Walker-Peddakotla, former village trustee and Freedom to Thrive organizer, declined request for comment but slammed the BerryDunn report in a series of scathing Twitter posts. Walker-Peddakotla, who resigned last August, tweeted that the village should have paid Freedom to Thrive Oak Park for its report, the reception of which she called “vile” and “vicious.” She further tweeted that the village owes the group, as well as ROYAL, Revolutionary Oak Park Youth Action League, an apology.

No such apology was made at the village board meeting. However, trustee Chibuike Enyia, who was not on the board at the time Freedom to Thrive submitted its report, expressed his gratitude for the community organizers’ work.

The mammoth BerryDunn report was a year in the making. The consulting firm was contracted in August 2021 to do an independent analysis of the equitability of the department’s policies and operations, in light of the murder of George Floyd in May of the previous year.

From the start, Walker-Peddakotla was strongly against conducting an assessment, which cost the village roughly $159,000, when Freedom to Thrive had already released an analysis of the police department the month before Floyd’s death. The Freedom to Thrive organizer was the sole board member to vote against contracting BerryDunn, which is staffed by former law enforcement personnel.

Another major similarity between the two reports was the ambiguity of the term “suspicious person” when used by police as a reason to stop individuals because it could contribute to bias-based policing. BerryDunn recommended clearly defining the phrase and putting it into department policy, as well as conducting conversations with 911 call centers regarding how to route those calls. The firm further recommended that officers stop unnecessarily pulling people over to conduct speculative searches, which are known as pretextual stops. The same directive was also applied to consent searches.

“There should be a basis for requesting it, it shouldn’t just be an arbitrary thing,” Weinzetl said.

Unlike Walker-Peddakotla, the board was pleased with the work conducted by the BerryDunn team and the report it compiled, which is available on the Village of Oak Park’s website.

“This report confirms to me that Oak Park’s police department is highly functioning and a really competent police department,” said Trustee Susan Buchanan.

The Freedom to Thrive report is also available on its website.

Weinzetl was thanked for her efforts and the report praised for its comprehensiveness. The entire report with its supporting documents exceeds several hundred pages in length. The daunting size of the report led the board to ask numerous questions during the three-hour meeting, but the night’s million-dollar question was posed by Trustee Jim Taglia, who asked Weinzetl if BerryDunn’s findings would lessen the amount of crime in Oak Park.

Her response was more theoretical than numerical. If implemented, BerryDunn’s recommendations would increase the efficiency of the police department, thereby freeing time to further analyze the efficacy of crime suppression approaches and make adjustments if needed, according to Weinzetl.

Much of what BerryDunn has recommended will require time, money and effort to implement. A taskforce created by Village Manager Kevin Jackson is currently studying alternative police response models for answering mental health calls. Upcoming budgeting discussions will decide which potential expenses are prioritized.

For the village manager, the results of the BerryDunn assessment, warts and all, provide an opportunity to build a more equitable police department.

“It’s a pretty bold action to really comprehensively review your police department,” he said. “There’s some synergy here that actually supports us moving forward together to try to make this a success.”

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