Alarming racial disparities in Oak Park policing

Opinion: Columns


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Kevin Barnhart

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On July 16, someone called Oak Park police, saying, "There are kids playing baseball in the park who don't look like they live in Oak Park."

What are Oak Park kids supposed to look like? Think about it. Kids are playing baseball. The caller expects the police to enforce his or her sense of "who belongs" in Oak Park. Why?

Oak Park has a reputation for being a progressive, inclusive community, but we continue to see that is not true for everyone. Take policing in Oak Park. It lays bare a disturbing disparity when it comes to race: Black people are stopped at alarmingly higher rates compared to white people.

A new Freedom to Thrive Oak Park analysis of police records obtained from Freedom of Information Act requests reveals that Black people are stopped by Oak Park police in field investigations (non-traffic related stops), at six times the rate of white people, accounting for 78 percent of the 967 field stops made from January 2015 through June 2020.

This "trend" is particularly troubling, given that Black residents make up only 18 percent of Oak Park's population.

Two major reasons explain this glaring disparity:

1. Police do exhibit racial bias. Unfortunately, they have the legal authority to act on their biases. Police adhere to a subjective ideology that is overly reliant on gut-feelings and hunches that traumatize Black people. The Oak Park Police Department encourages residents to act on their worst impulses by calling 911 for anything. This absurd policy is promoted on the village website in the highly subjective Guide to the Suspicious. This policy unequivocally harms and traumatizes Black residents by normalizing and legitimizing racial profiling.

2. This one will be a bit tougher for many white Oak Parkers to accept: Many of you see Black people and deem them as suspicious, frequently calling the police for nothing more than a Black person walking down the street or playing baseball in a public park. Oak Park, you have a problem — steeped in racial profiling and white supremacy. The data are undeniable and must not be dismissed. They reveal an unpleasant truth about Oak Park's racist attitudes.

Suspicion is the predominant reason Black people are stopped in Oak Park. Our analysis shows:

1. 79 percent of the Black people stopped fall into three categories: suspicious person, suspicious activity, and suspicious auto. These terms are subjective because the Oak Park Police Department does not provide specific definitions.

2. Black is the color of suspicion in Oak Park, especially for males. Of the males stopped under the age of 18, an astounding 97 percent are Black. Black people live under a cloud of suspicion, creating increased police interactions that negatively impact their mental health and put their lives at risk. This better-safe-than-sorry attitude promoted by the Oak Park police emboldens white residents to act on unfounded fears, further marginalizing and criminalizing Black lives in our community.

The vision we have of Oak Park as a welcoming and inclusive community is more an illusion than reality when it comes to Black people. For Oak Park to truly deserve its progressive reputation, it must critically examine the motivations behind racist actions for there to be any hope of dispelling the illusion.

If reading this embarrasses you, makes you uncomfortable, or makes you deny the racist beliefs that led you to dial 911, ask yourself why you think police intervention is necessary. Your not knowing someone is an invalid reason to involve the police. More importantly, ask yourself if you would call the police as readily on someone who is white? Resist knee-jerk responses. Make every effort to see the harm you might bring to someone who is simply trying to live their life in our community.

We must boldly reckon with these alarming statistics. These disturbing outcomes will not change unless we are willing to dismantle the systemic root causes that created them. Only then will everyone in our community have the freedom to thrive.

Kevin Barnhart is a Freedom to Thrive Oak Park organizer and a Citizens Police Oversight Committee member.

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Reader Comments

22 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 7th, 2020 9:45 PM

The Freedom To Thrive narrative is a classic example of confirmation bias.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 7th, 2020 10:36 AM

Freedom to Thrive is continuing to push this specious narrative on Facebook. Two days ago they put a graphic up showing that 91 Black male minors were stopped by police the past 5 years, 5 months. That's about 280 weeks, so about one stop every 21 days. And again, FTT offers no information about WHERE the youth who were stopped are from, what they were doing, or what the resolution of the stop was. Comparing the number of Black minor males stopped by Oak Park police to the percentage of Black village residents, without including such key information, is patent nonsense. This may be above the ability of FTT to comprehend, but the numbers aren't going to match village demographics if the people being stopped aren't FROM the village. And IF the young people stopped were actually doing something wrong- FTT doesn't bother including that information- then again, village demographics are meaningless. Do your homework, Freedom to Thrive.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: August 6th, 2020 6:22 PM

Read William Dwyer's posts and consult the actual daily crime reports. available online on the Village's website.. Most of the arrested perpetrators do not live here and many of the victims are from out of town, possibly going to restaurants etc. What a welcome for them!

Jay Butler  

Posted: August 6th, 2020 4:29 PM

I was concerned about the Freedom to Thrive analysis of OP policing when i read it; I am happy to see there has already been a reasonably productive conversation. I agree with most of William Dwyer's last post. It makes no sense to simply compare the percentage of police stops of a given group with the percentage of that group in the general population. You need to compare the stops with the actual verified crimes committed by that group. Also OP is not some island. Mr Dyer has said all that much better than I could. Thanks.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 6th, 2020 11:45 AM

Anyone who seriously wants to tackle police misconduct, as opposed to overhyping and nationalizing a local issue, would do well to read this excellent article in the Washington Post on abolishing "qualified immunity" for law enforcement. That would allow victims of police overreach to sue in civil court with a fair and reasonable chance of prevailing in court. . .

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: August 5th, 2020 3:14 PM

The key point is what the people were actually doing when stopped. If they were committing a crime a high percentage of the time, not much else to discuss. And this is over five years, so only about one stop every couple days, which is pretty low for a town of this size. It is a talking point that doesn't hold up very well at all as a complaint.

Roger Oney  

Posted: August 5th, 2020 11:08 AM

There is a very important point that I believe the article misses. Even if the kids are not from oak park, that is perfectly fine! We should be proud to have parks that people from out of town want to come and use. They are available to all, not just residents. There is nothing illegal about people "from out of town" utilizing the park space, just like how we are able to go downtown and enjoy the riverwalk.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 4th, 2020 1:35 PM

The accurate percentage of Black residents in Oak Park is 18,28, Mr. Pflurcke. Have you lived in Oak Park long? Because you're uninformed on this issue. The crime problem here is not primarily due to Black Oak Park residents, but those from Chicago and elsewhere. If you doubt me on this, go through the criminal incident reports. Facts matter in this discussion, including the inconvenient facts that don't support what you want to believe.

James Pfluecke from Oak Park  

Posted: August 3rd, 2020 12:27 PM

Thank you Mr. Barnhard for bringing this data and analysis to a wider audience in Oak Park and setting yourself up to be attacked by people who cannot be bothered to think about what the data means for black men and boys or to even try to imagine your experience. Your critics want to talk about Austin, but Oak Park is 20% African American, 99.9% of whom do not commit crimes but get stopped by the police as suspects. Who get the police called on them for, well, living in their own neighborhood. These teens and young men are seen as a threat in their own neighborhood, on their own block, on their way home from school, on their way to work, on their commute. The overwhelming majority of young black men from Austin who come into Oak Park are here for work, to shop, to visit friends, to visit family, to walk on the track, to job, to ride a bike, to get to another town on the other side of Oak Park. And they are seen by many of our neighbors as suspicious. It is a logical and statistical fallacy to promote racial profiling -which several commentators here have done-when the nearly every African American who lives, works, shops, passes through, exercises, or simply exists in Oak Park is not a criminal. Mr. Barnhard gets to the behavior of many of our white neighbors in his second to last paragraph.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 3rd, 2020 12:24 PM

Did you ask the OPPD to confirm the meanings of the abbreviations in the "reason code" column, Adam? I assume TRES is trespass, SPER is suspicious person, PANH is panhandle, OTHE is "other"? and SUSP is... suspicious? Not clear what SOLI, LOCA, JUNK and other mean. And, did the "reason" listed effect your analysis in any way?

Adam Paradis  

Posted: August 3rd, 2020 10:05 AM

Here is the data used for the report:

Les Golden  

Posted: August 3rd, 2020 7:05 AM

Illuminating discussions of the ills of our society are plagued by those who lack the quantitative skills to analyze crime, its causes and its perpetrators. The comments on this page reflect this shortcoming. Bayesian analysis allows one to provide probabilities that a given cause created an observed effect. Re crime, you can analyze it based on economic level, recidivism, race, age, and any other parameter you'd like. Just google -- bayesian analysis of who commits crimes -- and read the papers to get nonjudgmental, nonemotional, objective conclusions. Then feel free to criticize the conclusions based on whatever subjective criterion you choose, and ignore the proven strength of Bayesian analysis in reaching truth for over 250 years in virtually every field of inquiry, from medical diagnosis, preference of male fruit flies in mating, and structural failure in bridges to solving the Monty Hall Problem.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: August 2nd, 2020 6:06 PM

William Dwyer is hardly some arch-right conservative, He simply points out that the fact that Blacks are stopped more and questioned by the police is not some prima facie case for racial discrimination, even when the numbers show a greatly disproportionate rate with their presence compared to those who live or pass through here. Males and young people of any race show similar disparities. Do they have a beef? I was questioned at length at a North Shore shopping center when I was lingering around a mall directory near a parking garage while trying to find the Brandeis University Book Sale.after there had been numerous attempts to break into cars (as the young officer explained). I was pissed but got over it. What kind of editorial vetting goes into allowing this inflammatory drivel to be printed? I know someone who had to write the equivalent of a footnoted Doctoral Dissertation to get an Op-Ed re the Mega Pool (Bill G), are you listening?.)

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: August 2nd, 2020 5:50 PM

Sorry, I thought Freedom to Thrive wants to defund the police, when they only want to "Budget investigations show a need for reducing the amount spent on policing and increasing the amount spent on human services that promote real community safety." Maybe it's just me, but reducing the amount spent on policing isn't going to promote real community safety, unless you live in an alternative universe. I do not want anyone stopped by the police without probable cause. The article only talks about stops, not crime statistics.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 2nd, 2020 5:34 PM

Lots of yada yada there, Andrew. Save it for your sociology professor. As much as you may want to make a "separate conversation" out of the fact that Black males commit an inordinate about of crime, and I'm limiting this to Oak Park, it is a part of the conversation, whether you like it or not. You folks on the far left are as much an obstacle as those on the far right to having a full and productive conversation , in so much as you are just as guilty as making sweeping assumptions about issues. The fact that I lean toward your world view doesn't make it any easier to accept your biased point of view. "Constant harassment by the police." Seriously? The cops have much better things to do than spend all their time harassing Black folk. You undercut your argument with others by making such silly statements. And Corena? The vast majority of people in Oak Park, even the ones I disagree with on some issues, are nothing like the Southies you may be so offended with in Boston.

Andrew Tardif  

Posted: August 2nd, 2020 1:06 PM

Well some people had some sour milk in their coffee, huh? I'm going to have to agree with Corena here, I think it's interesting that the primary defense that arises is, "Their agenda is to defund the police so don't trust it!" I would like to address the fact that Mr. Barnhart doesn't suggest at any point in this article to "defund the police". That seems to be a diversionary tactic so easily pulled out of the holster of the uncomfortable. Now, I think it's really great that some people are presenting their passionate take on this data; it really helps us to find the nuance in these situations. However, this presented data is part of the nuance of this situation, and not a detraction from it. Therefore it should be treated as such. I find it strange that the defense presented to these statistics, while some of you at the same time stand by your belief that they are faulty, is that young Black males commit an inordinately large percentage of crimes. That is a separate conversation, these are not crime statistics, nor is this even the discussion. These are calls into the police indicative of the "see something, say something" mentality that has plagued our country for so long, and we must acknowledge that many an innocent individual are put through a certain amount of undeserved scrutiny and emotional turmoil from the constant watchful eye of residents who have unjustified fears and prejudices, and the strong arm of the police force. If you are an American that actually stands for the freedoms of individuals and their right to go about their days without the constant harassment of police, then at least acknowledge the fact that something is problematic here; that there is at least discussion to be had instead of hiding behind terminology that makes you justify your avoidance of the actual issue. C'mon folks, we're better than this.

Corena Chase from Norwell  

Posted: August 2nd, 2020 10:19 AM

These responses sadden me. They are the classic responses of denial and diversion when we white people are confronted with the possibility of being made uncomfortable or having to admit there is work to be done that will require us to re-examine our behaviors and beliefs. For so many decades black people have been trying to communicate the injustices they continually experience-with words, stories, data, video, marches?"and there are always those who find all sorts of reasons not to listen...they are exaggerating, they are too aggressive, they should say it this way instead, they should consider this factor, they shouldn't be so angry, that data isn't valid because... This is simply an article in a local paper presenting data to validate an experience, followed by a request to look within and see where bias and prejudice lives within you. Yet the first comment accuses the writer of belonging to a "dangerous" organization. (An organization of local citizens looking for data driven, policy examining ways of creating a more inclusive community) The second comment diverts us to cancel culture. And then we get all the reasons this data shouldn't really matter. Distract, deny and accuse the messenger of being dangerous. Have we really made so little progress? What if we invited further conversation rather than jumping to simply shut it down?

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: July 31st, 2020 9:02 PM

Freedom to Thrive is a dangerous and ignorant organization that wants to defund the police. They want you to contact the trustees and ask them to defund the police. Please contact your trustees and ask them to continue to fund the police.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: July 31st, 2020 8:16 PM

I don't stick to party lines if I don't agree, and I won't be "cancelled," Doc. I value facts, not the latest political fashion, however feel good it may be. .

Bruce Kline  

Posted: July 31st, 2020 7:49 PM

Well William be careful with such an opinion (of which I agree by the way) since you are likely to be doxxed or cancelled. I mean you did say you were planning on moving here, right? If so stick to the "party line" as expressed so well by Mr. Barnhart.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: July 31st, 2020 4:47 PM

Our condo building occasionally gets homeless people who get past the door locks and hang out inside our building. The last time that happened, it fell on me to call the police. We can't leave them in the building as it is not safe, and it has lead to theft and vandalism in the past. Three officers came. They were gentle, firm and respectful to the person who was trespassing as they got him out of the building. We need police in situations like this. They have to deal with these issues all the time and they do it professionally. Mr. Barnhart's odd use of stats tries to imply a call like this one is a result of bias, when it is the result of trespassing and has nothing to do with bias. Also, its a call in to police, and no harm was done to anyone when the police took action. That Mr. Barnhart is on an Oversight Committee and he is trying to use stats this way to publicly say Police or citizens are doing something wrong is a sign that he should probably not be overseeing anything.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: July 31st, 2020 11:07 AM

I hope the actual discussion of and eventual analysis of the issue of race and policing in Oak Park goes deeper than the shallow analysis here. There's no doubt that "Black is the color of suspicion in Oak Park, especially for males." That's not open to question. What is open to question is why is that so. Prejudice? Certainly that is a factor sometimes. But what Mr Barnhart leaves out is the documented fact- review the criminal incident reports sometime- that the overwhelming majority of observed criminal suspects are Black males. For years I would visit the OP police department twice weekly and once weekly at the River Forest police department, and go through the daily incident books available at the front desk. And again and again and again, the individuals identified by witnesses and/or victims were Black males, and to a lesser extent, Hispanic males. That doesn't mean that Blacks are inherently criminal- that's a racist view. But it DOES mean that Black males- mid teens into their late 20s, largely, commit an inordinately large percent of mostly opportunistic property crimes like theft, burglary, robbery, etc, in Oak Park and River Forest. That's a fact. The west side Austin neighborhood has one of the largest concentrations of ex-offenders in the country. That's a fact. And poverty and lack of opportunity are major drivers of criminal al behavior. That's a fact. So while I applaud the effort to address genuine disparity in the treatment of all people of color, I reject the simplistic idea the just because police stop far more Black males than white males, that that shows that the primary reason is racial bias by police. ..It does not, and to assume so is to engage in a different form of prejudice, i.e., pre-judicial thought... And by the way, a call for service that may be motivated by racial animus IS NOT the fault of police.

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