For many years we have said that Oak Park has a better-than-average police department. And then we’ve always asked why it doesn’t aspire to have an extraordinary police department, which actively engages around the foundational truth that public safety and progressive community policing ought to be fully joined.

There is no dichotomy between having a village that is safe for all of its members and guests and having a police force that is engaged, respectful and respected by those it serves. 

We are hope-filled that, with continued intentional leadership from this village board, Village Manager Kevin Jackson and Police Chief Shatonya Johnson, Oak Park has chosen to aim higher.

The most recent evidence of that came Monday when the village board received a 47-point report from the village manager’s task force on how Oak Park can create alternate public safety responses when a crisis of mental health requires intervention. 

The report, crafted over months by a 30-member task force of public officials, mental health professionals, and others of goodwill, was plain in stating that sending cops and firefighters as the initial responders to a mental-health crisis is the wrong response. 

“The presence of police can sometimes exacerbate a mental health crisis,” said Allison Davenport, the CEO of Forest Park-based Riveredge Hospital, and co-chair with Cheryl Potts of the Community Mental Health Board, from the task force. 

The report, which was warmly received, first by Jackson and now the village board, offered an array of actionable steps. At the top of the list is hiring trained clinical crisis workers and social workers and embedding them within the police department. Their roles would be not only the first responders when a 911 call presents as a mental-health issue but also to work internally to continue to change the culture of the department to embrace new thinking on engagement with mental-health issues.

It should be noted that this department has been a leader over two decades in taking early steps to recognize the unique responses necessary in a mental-health crisis. Past chiefs Tony Ambrose and Rick Tanksley get credit for seeing this issue early and taking action.

However, the proposals here go much further, are more ambitious and visionary. We hope and expect that having a police chief whose early career has roots in social work will speed the implementation of the recommendations. We also expect that, as staff works to turn the ideas of the task force into next steps, it will hear the urging of Trustee Lucia Robinson that it “elevates” a core focus on diversity, equity and inclusion into the new policies.

On that topic, we await a second task force of similar talent and vision to work from the strong BerryDunn consultant’s report on village policing and focus on issues of community engagement, racial equity and progressive change in our village’s view of policing.

The momentum here is real. Let’s keep moving actively forward to build the best police department in America. 

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