Public bares all in Oak Park police sessions

Police officers were not required to listen to sessions

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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

"If they watched, they did as private citizens and were not required to notify me or the village," Police Chief LaDon Reynolds wrote in an Aug. 6 email to Wednesday Journal.

Described as an opportunity for "anyone who has any type of experiences with Oak Park to share their story" by session moderator and Assistant Village Attorney Rasheda Jackson, the listening sessions were a part of the village board's pledge to address racism associated with law enforcement.

The village board intends to use the testimonials shared to guide conversations future conversations.

"The listening sessions were designed to take place without the police being involved to foster an environment of openness and candor," Reynolds said in an email. "There was no one assigned to participate."

It is unclear if Reynolds himself watched.

Johntia Williams, who participated in the second session, asked Jackson point blank who the listeners were on the session before beginning her testimonial.

"It's being broadcast on our village's [TV] channel," Jackson responded. "It's also going to be archived on the village's website."

Jackson did not share whether any trustees or village staff had tuned in, but she may not have known who watched. 

The community members who shared stories of past interactions with Oak Park police had varying levels of satisfaction. Descriptions of police behavior and attitudes ranged from professional and respectful to dismissive, flippant and unresponsive.

Chris Rooney, an Oak Park resident of about 25 years, called his experiences with police in Oak Park "pretty good, not great" in his testimony given in the Aug. 6 session. Rooney said he believed racism in policing stems reflects racism in the wider community.

Rooney, who is Black, shared an experience from about 10 years ago when he was out at night with a flashlight looking for his girlfriend's dog and someone called the police on him.

"It was just an instance of the police being called in response to what the residents thought was a threat," said Rooney.

Rooney shared another instance in which he said he was profiled by a Black police officer. While on his way to a friend's house, Rooney was driving very slowly looking at the addresses to find that of his friend. A squad car pulled him over just as he found his friend's house.

"Any Black person develops kind of a 'spider sense' when you know you're going to get pulled over," Rooney said.

Altogether, Rooney called his experiences "predominantly good" and stated he had experienced worse treatment in other places, but said Oak Park has "manufactured diversity" that is not always "truly inclusive."

Some of the speakers cited statistics indicating police racial biases taken from a report compiled by activist group Freedom to Thrive Oak Park, using information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Johntia Williams' testimony included a 2016 statement of complaint, which she titled "Does my Black safety matter in Oak Park?" against an officer "Hawkinson." Williams reported the officer for displaying unprofessional, disrespectful conduct during an incident in which a man she said threatened to attack her with his pit bull as she was going to pick up her child from daycare. With no witnesses around, Williams felt extremely unsafe.

Williams said the man "unleashed his dog, whistled and gestured the dog toward" her; the dog came within 10 feet of Williams while the owner just watched. However, the police officer reportedly chalked it up to a misunderstanding based on the dog owner's words.

Williams said she would never irrationally call the police on an unleashed dog. She said she called the police for protection but received "apathy" and "disrespect."

"Officer Hawkinson displayed no compassion, no sensitivity or empathy for what I'd just experienced," said Williams. "He dismissed my concerns as a misunderstanding."

When Williams asked the officer, "If it were truly an accident, why didn't [the man] apologize?" Williams was told the man did proffer an apology.

"Officer Hawkinson, who obviously was not there when it took place, responded by telling me that maybe I simply didn't hear his apology," Williams said.

The man was issued a ticket for not leashing his dog, but Williams wanted him arrested for using his dog to threaten her. Williams said the officer reprimanded her, while trading dog stories with the offender.

Williams' claim against the officer was ruled "unsubstantiated."

Oak Park resident Emily Neumann said the Oak Park Police Department was consistently unresponsive to her and her lawyer after Neumann reported she was raped in her home by a man she knew. The period of unresponsiveness spanned two years.

"I was wronged by the Oak Park Police Department," said Neumann, who is not Black.

After Neumann went to the hospital, she was escorted home by two female officers who collected evidence. A week later, Neumann felt ready to press criminal charges against the man who assaulted her and called the detective on the case.

 "No one called me back," Neumann said.

Calls made by Neumann's lawyer also went unanswered and unreturned. An entire year passed, and Neumann still had not heard from the police.

Neumann's lawyer sent a formal letter to the police, but still received no response.

"From then on, my lawyer called on a regular basis," said Neumann, who added police still did not respond.

"At this point in typing up this testimony, I literally just highlighted and copied the phrase 'we received no response' because it's about to be used a lot," Neumann said.

Eight and a half months after police were notified of Neumann's desire to press charges, police contacted Neumann. A detective told Neumann's lawyer of plans to follow up on the case.

The responses stopped again. Until months later, Neumann was told the detective on the case had retired and her case wasn't reassigned.

"One year after the Oak Park Police Department was notified in writing and two years after my original call to them, an active detective was finally on my case," said Neumann.

Finally, when Neumann was interviewed in the department by an assistant state's attorney, the man who raped her was in another room "20 feet away."

Neumann was assured by the detective and assistant state's attorney that they believed her.

"The following day I was notified that no charges would be brought against the man who raped me," Neumann said.

Neumann's story, she said, was the norm for sexual assault survivors who seek law due process against those who assault them.

"I'm speaking up because I want to sprinkle the water of truth on the wicked witch that is the police response to sexual assault," Neumann said.

Brian Straw, who spoke first during the in the first listening session, started off by stating that he is a white man living in northwest Oak Park. 

"In my personal experience, the Oak Park police have been respectful and professional, which is, of course, exactly what you'd expect to hear someone who looks like me say," Straw said.

He added the village was likely to hear a lot more testimony by other white people during the two listening sessions.

"I largely urge you to disregard them," Straw said. "My experience as a white man does nothing to undermine the very real stories and data demonstrating a shocking pattern of racial profiling in Oak Park."

He urged those listening to pay close attention to the testimonials shared by Black residents, who likely have had very different experiences with police. 

Straw stated that 78 percent of all field stops initiated by Oak Park police were of Black individuals, a statistic found in the report compiled by local activist group Freedom to Thrive Oak Park.

"This is at a time when 18 percent of our residents are Black," Straw said. "More alarming, of the 94 field stops of boys under the age of 18, just children, 91 of them were of Black boys."

Like Straw, Judith Alexander said in her experience, police officers in Oak Park were professional and polite. She mentioned that police officers had caught the people who burglarized her home.

"I recognize that there are issues with profiling," Alexander said.

She asked that those who "are looking at this issue to please not do anything that would jeopardize public safety."

During his testimony, Jameel Rafia thanked the village for organizing the sessions but stated that more needed to be done to root out racism in Oak Park. 

"Years of institutionalized racism has given white people a sense of superiority," Rafia said. "You give them a badge, you give them a gun, you give them a stick and you send them out in the community."

Rafia described his experience with Oak Park police as one "met with sadness."

"It's something about my Black skin that activates their hate," Rafia said of police officers.

He shared a particular instance when his young son and his friend wanted to rake leaves in their neighborhood. They went door to door, rakes in hand, asking neighbors if they could rake their leaves. 

"Someone on this block called the police on my son," Rafia said.

Six police cars circled the two young Black boys and held them for 30 minutes, according to Rafia.

"What is it about Black skin that activates this hate in white police officers?" Rafia asked. 

Rafia also shared a time when he was riding his bike out of his garage and a police officer stopped him. The officer, Rafia said, told him there had been a string of garage burglaries in the area.

"No there hadn't, because I would have heard it from my beat officer," Rafia said.

The police officer reportedly asked Rafia why he was coming out of his garage and if he lived nearby. He also asked Rafia to show his identification. 

 "I stopped for a minute and took a deep breath, because I wanted to make it home," Rafia said.

Like Straw, Rafia referred to data found in the Freedom to Thrive policing report, indicating police stop Black people more often than they do white people.

"You can dislike me, you can dislike white people, but you cannot dispute the numbers," he said. 

Rafia concluded his testimony by saying that, although people are working for change, it will take time to reverse the deep-seated racism in the United States.

"Racism is baked into the cake of who America is."

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Reader Comments

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Andy Moss  

Posted: August 10th, 2020 10:28 PM

What's awesome about these comments is that it makes it super easy to identify which people in Oak Park are assholes.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 10th, 2020 4:38 PM

The WJ quotes Citizens Police Oversight Chair Jim Downing saying that Oak Park receives "only about 20 to 30 citizen complaints against officers" in a 12 month period. Complaints, he said, that "revolve around unprofessional conduct. "[The officer] was dismissive or not responsive, maybe acting upset." . . Meanwhile, in just the two months (64 days) between between May 30 and Aug 2, there were 24 ROBBERIES (sorry, no italics available) with a hand gun displayed in 16 instances. Plus two other incidents in which people were shot at while at a stop light, and another where the victim was obviously targeted and shot in the leg. . . If you need to ask what people are AFRAID of, the answer is CRIME, not any discussion on race.

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: August 10th, 2020 12:59 PM

Anyone still want to defund the police?

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: August 9th, 2020 4:57 PM

@Jason, you just confirmed what I said. I have no anecdotal information about being pulled over without probable. If I was pulled over I would be calm, polite and happy the police were doing their job.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 9th, 2020 3:37 PM

"The police were nice enough but why did they get called at all ..." Ok Jason, so if the cops were "nice enough" and I presumed professional why is this whole argument focussed on the police? Your very example illustrates why this "police initiative" is ill advised. The police are not the problem here. Maybe the conversation should focus on the citizens instead.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 9th, 2020 12:57 PM

Tell you what, Jason. Now that this issue has been raised to such a high public profile, I expect to begin seeing documented reports of incident where OP citizens formally accuse police of harassment, mistreatment, and other misbehavior. Not anecdotal, "this happened to me once" stuff, formal complaints with specific allegations. I'll take those seriously and demand police be held accountable. If it's happened, as you put it, "a ton of times," I'm guessing it will continue to occur. Right?

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 9th, 2020 11:43 AM

@Neal, it's funny because your comment literally speaks to exactly why there is a problem. How do you think you would feel about all this if you had to interact with the police a ton of times even though you literally did nothing wrong? How would you feel being pulled over for literally doing nothing or have the police question you when you were pulling out of your own house? Your experience as a white man shows exactly what the issue is. You have no stories like the one in this article which means you have no clue about the issues discussed and therefore bring nothing to the table related to this issue.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 9th, 2020 11:37 AM

It's interesting now threatened so many people are in OP over a real discussion on race and the police. All this defending and so little sympathy for the people sharing their negative experiences. It's funny because all many of you do is complain about crime in this town but yet when the conversation goes to race the police are the best ever. Isn't it possible that our current ways of policing is simply not that effective? We have a basketball hoop in our alley and have always allowed anyone to play on it. When white kids were on it no issues. When black kids were using it 3 separate times the police were called. The police were nice enough but why did they get called at all and why do people with guns need to show up for something as small as this? When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. What if making changes can lead to less racism and lower crime??

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: August 8th, 2020 4:31 PM

I'm white, old, and have lived in Oak Park 45 years. The only time we interact with the police is when a squad car leads our local 4th of July parade. Although some people have said my opinion doesn't count because I am white, I say to all the wonderful public servants in our police force - Thank You!

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: August 8th, 2020 1:55 PM

Thank you Bryan Rekarson. Unemployment, poverty, whatever are not excuses to commit a crime. Bryan you are 100% correct !

Bryan Rekarson from OP  

Posted: August 8th, 2020 1:33 PM

Did any white people get up and share their experiences of being attacked by black people in the Village? Did anyone tell the story of my good friend who's wife was almost attacked on the Green Line platform by two punk black kids as she was exiting down the back stairwell near Forest, however her spider-sense told her to run towards the Harlem exit instead. Meanwhile, she had called her husband (my friend) who confronted these punks who pulled knives and chased him across North Blvd while his kids sat in the car and watched, literally shitting in their pants. Husband got defensive and fought the punks off and scared them away. Police were called, nobody was caught or arrested because the husband and wife weren't hurt, "only scared" by the incident. Anyone get up and tell this story? All I see is a bunch of bullshit about someone having the police called because they had a flashlight and someone was scare of a dog. Close this down. So sick of this racist media agenda. And I will tell you what, we have enough friends in the Village with the same opinions. Many more than you think. The minority is the loudest right now.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: August 8th, 2020 11:00 AM

Adrienne: Actually the officer had called for backup (I was stopped by two squad cars from each end) and they wondered why someone with Michigan plates was in Oak Park after midnight.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 8th, 2020 10:06 AM

The comments supporting Freedom to Thrive illustrate exactly what's wrong with their approach- they want to foster policy changes here in Oak Park that will have NO effect on the national realities that have created the problems in the first place. The VOP Board can do NOTHING about the unemployment rate, in educational inequities Blacks endure, the underfunding of primary schools, or for that matter, Covid 19 and this tanked economy. They're pulling on a lever that doesn't control anything.

Adrienne Szarmack Smith from Oak Park  

Posted: August 8th, 2020 9:27 AM

Kevin Peppard Can we assume you were treated with courtesy during those two stops? Officer didn't immediately put his hand on the butt of his gun while approaching your vehicle? Didn't treat you with suspicion or ask why you were in the neighborhood and if you lived there? Didn't call for back up? See some of the differences?

Jeffrey Smith  

Posted: August 8th, 2020 8:13 AM

Gee. For some strange reason no one here seems much concerned about why our crime stats are the way they are. Let's start with this: over all unemployment is currently 10.2. Among Blacks it's 14.6. Along Hispanics it's 12.9. Unemployment benefits for most who were eligible have expired. This thread is obsessed with symptoms but displays not an iota of interest in causes. That's the authoritarian psyche writ large. Complacency, material comfort and intellectual laziness has led the United States toward obscene income inequality and social collapse. And they STILL can't ask why. I'll help. Whites are responsible for the overall dire straights of people of color in this country and their answer to the problems is more arrests, more prisons, less money for education, and electing a monster. Want change? You first.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: August 8th, 2020 7:01 AM

Waste of time. Let the police do their job. How about meeting with the Criminals, Parents of these criminals? I would gladly be pulled over and questioned if it meant possibly.preventing another crime. Again, focus is on wrong group of people. A police office is going to not do his job out of fear of policy, and someone might be a victim because of that non action. Lets focus on who is committing 78% of the crimes? SUPPORT the Police!

Jason Pacynski from Oak Park  

Posted: August 8th, 2020 1:32 AM

On May 31 and the nights following it, Oak Park PD stood up, and protected this village and the residents living within it. They have done so with dignity, respect, and equitable consideration for the residents and citizens living within the bounds of where where we are housed. Thank you, Oak Park PD, for everything you have done, do, and are willing contribute to our community.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: August 7th, 2020 10:13 PM

Deborah Wess: William Dwyer's analysis on another thread figures that there's one stop every 21 days for a`Black teenager. I've been stopped twice by Oak Park Police, once for slow driving while I was looking for a parking spot. and another for having an overloaded car when moving back from Michigan where they thought my rear vision was obscured. A Black officer stopped me. He was doing his job.

Deborah Wess  

Posted: August 7th, 2020 9:28 PM

It seems one huge issue in OP (as elsewhere) is police "over-responding" to the racist calls of white residents on their Black neighbors. I understand the department and the Village itself are afraid of potential liability if they were ever found to have knowingly failed to respond to what was later found to be a crime. But much more nuanced judgement is called for when responding to 911 calls. That's an added burden for our police force, for sure. But it's a critical way to start limiting these kinds of spurious calls (negative reinforcement) and a crucial step to rebuilding trust on the behalf of Black residents who are so unjustly experiencing these interactions.

Bill Stenger  

Posted: August 7th, 2020 8:20 PM

Exhausting - just exhausting.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: August 7th, 2020 5:19 PM

William Dwyer Jr.: And he lives in a Black neighborhood near Washington Park, race unknown. Maybe he's a prof at U of Chi.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 7th, 2020 4:28 PM

Typo. That's 63 year old man.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: August 7th, 2020 1:34 PM

If these are the highlights from ten full years, can we stop pretending this is a thing and move on to something else.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: August 7th, 2020 12:20 PM

Here's a snapshot of what police dealt with between July 30 and Thursday night, August 5, according to Police Activity Summary Reports available on the village website. . . 29 criminal incidents, including three armed robberies, numerous thefts and retail thefts, burglaries, criminal damage to property. In incidents in which witness gave police suspect descriptions, nine were male Black and two were female Black. In the seven incidents where police arrested someone, two were male Black, one a female Black, one was male Hispanic and ALL seven were non-Oak Park residents, most from Chicago's west and south sides. .. The other ten crimes listed- burglary, theft and two stolen autos- were committed by unknown individuals. In none of the 29 criminal incidents was a White person identified as a suspect, despite Whites making up 69 percent of the population. However, a 30 year old Southside Chicago man arrested for DUI Aug. 4 may be White. .. .Those are documented facts. Make of them what you will.

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