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Alarming racial disparities in Oak Park policing

Opinion: Columns

July 29th, 2020 10:29 AM

Updated: Aug. 5th, 2020 9:01 AM

Kevin Barnhart

One view

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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