A review of 'public safety' is needed

Opinion: Columns

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By Brian Straw

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In Oak Park, we are proud of our history of being a leader on issues of diversity. Unfortunately, at times it seems that we as a village have decided the progress we made a generation ago was sufficient. 

Back in October, the Oak Park Village Board voted unanimously that it would "work to break down systems of oppression" and ensure that "everyone has what they need to thrive." During its June 22 meeting, the board voted to begin community conversations regarding policing, taking a tentative step in that direction with what has the potential to be a top-to-bottom review of public safety in Oak Park.

The review, however, should not be considered complete unless the board also reconsiders what "public safety" means. Public safety should not be confused with policing. We live in a world of complex problems — many of which do not require dispatching an officer with a badge and a gun. 

Over the past decade, the police budget has grown by more than 55 percent. In 2020, Oak Park budgeted nearly $26 million to the Oak Park Police Department, and the village board is considering spending more than $40 million on a new police station. The village currently has 23 officers per 10,000 citizens, tied for the second-highest ratio in communities with more than 34,000 residents in Illinois. 

Because of the continued growth of the Oak Park police, they have become something of a "help desk" in Oak Park.

Just a few weeks ago, I opened my back door and found an injured bird lying on my back porch. Nobody was in immediate danger and no laws were being broken. I was, however, concerned about what would happen if let my dog out. When I called animal control, the voicemail directed my call to the Oak Park police non-emergency number. Dispatch offered to send a uniformed officer to my home, which I politely declined. 

This problem repeats itself every day across our village as our police are asked to respond to calls ranging from disabled cars to mental health crises. As a village, we are simultaneously asking our police to do too much and, at the same time, not delivering the services necessary to ensure that "everyone has what they need to thrive." 

Instead of building and budgeting for a model of public safety that is founded on policing, Oak Park should work to be a leader in reimagining public safety for the 21st century. Now is the time for the village board to live into the values that they proclaimed in the Updated Diversity Statement on Oct.7, 2019. The village board should ensure, through a comprehensive review of the public safety budget, that "everyone has what they need to thrive."

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