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Freedom to Thrive's police critique comes up short

Opinion: Columns

August 12th, 2020 12:14 PM

Bill Dwyer

One view

The recent One View by Freedom to Thrive's Kevin Barnhart [Alarming racial disparities in Oak Park policing, Viewpoints, Aug. 5], quite simply, reaches conclusions unwarranted by any supposed evidence he presents. Nothing Barnhart produced proves racism by cops because adding up a few lines of figures is not analysis, unless you're Donald Trump.

I've absolutely no doubt Black people continue to endure police stops at a far higher rate than Caucasians. But the causal factors related to those circumstances are anything but certain, and Barnhart brings no clarity to the issue with his superficial and biased arguments. He not only does not identify what's actually happening but disparages our local law enforcement with unsubstantiated accusations using data that is at best anecdotal.

Were the documented stops justified? What triggered them? What was the resolution. And were the subjects Oak Park residents or from outside Oak Park?

Freedom to Thrive, which is actively seeking to change government policy, doesn't say. Yet they accuse Oak Park police of the serious misconduct of unfounded racial profiling, and village residents of racist fears, while offering no evidence for that claim except that far more Blacks are stopped and questioned than any other group.

"Black is the color of suspicion in Oak Park, especially for males," Barnhart says. But he ignores another truth, that Black is the color of the majority of criminal activity in Oak Park. And that uncomfortable truth must be factored into any honest discussion.

And it must be just that — a discussion, a dialogue, not a monologue.

It's one thing to point to out the denial that most whites have been guilty of, regarding the onerous realities Black people face. It's quite another to treat anyone with legitimate questions or criticisms as if they're coming from William Barr.

Freedom to Thrive has neither a monopoly on truth nor immunity from bias; not everyone who disagrees with their conclusions is a "denier "or trying to "distract" from the truth. There are numerous possible causal factors for the racial disparity in stops by Oak Park police.

I want to be absolutely clear — I blame the historical indifference of a white-dominated society for the injustices that plague Black America. Period. Full stop. Education and employment and housing options were systematically denied Blacks and others for many decades. It must stop.

But I don't accept unwarranted blame placed on officers of the Oak Park Police Department who have to deal daily with realities created by systemic racism.

Oak Park borders Chicago's Austin neighborhood, which has many active street gangs, and one of the largest concentrations of paroled felons in the country. A few years ago, a report by the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration stated that "roughly two-thirds of the 35,000 prisoners who are released from Illinois prisons each year return to just seven zip codes on the West and South sides of Chicago, where black male unemployment is over 40 percent." Another paper estimated that approximately 30,000 ex-offenders were residing in Austin then.

When police get a call of a "Black male, 20 to 25 years old, 5-foot-7 to 5-foot 9, 140 to 160 pounds, medium build and dreadlocks, wearing a white T-shirt," in an alley looking at garages, they don't look for dumpy middle-aged white guys in suits heading to work.

That's not bias.

Oak Park police are right to urge citizens to call them when they see suspicious activity. For every overwrought or even racist person calling on innocent Black kids playing baseball, there are dozens more reporting genuinely suspicious behavior.

Ironically, a closer look at what Barnhart and Paradisis found strongly suggests they need to take another look at the Field Contact statistics on which they base their conclusions. By the very numbers they use — 753 field contacts in the 65½ months from January 2015 to June 2020 with Black subjects — the dozens of Oak Park police officers on the streets, who get on average 180 calls for service daily, purportedly had reasonable suspicion to conduct a field contact with a Black person an average of once every two and a half days.

And actually, of those 753 stops, 57 were for trespass, panhandling, junking and, best I can tell, soliciting ("SOLI"). So the more accurate number is 696.

I've long been disgusted with Republicans' use of societal dog whistles, and their dishonesty in forming conclusions, then working backward to craft justifications for them. I have no tolerance when the same practices are used by the political left, pejorative terms like "deniers" and "distracting" that serve only to cut off dialogue.

Poorly analyzed research and unsubstantiated assumptions provide aid and comfort to those on the right who seek to dismiss liberal and progressive initiatives.

Oak Park isn't perfect. But it's not Ferguson Missouri, not Minneapolis, not Aurora, Colorado or Chicago. We need to raise the racial awareness of the overwrought few, not disparage the legitimate concerns of the majority. And Freedom to Thrive needs to do its homework, stop conflating local and national circumstances, and drop their one-size-fits-all approach.

Bill Dwyer is an Oak Park resident and former staff writer for Wednesday Journal.

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