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Policy and perceived threat discussed at policing forum

First-ever meeting of its kind opens public discussion

July 11th, 2020 2:02 PM

Deputy Chief Kenneth Gross and Chief Tom Aftanas (both seated at table) answered questions about use of force at the policing public forum on July 9. | Alex Rogals, Staff Photographer

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By Maria Maxham

Discussion about perceived threat between citizens and their police department began to get heated and led Mayor Rory Hoskins to ask that participants "lower the temperature" of the policing forum on July 9. During the meeting at village hall, police department leadership was forthcoming about policy and procedure, but some residents wanted a deeper discussion of systemic racism, despite a recently solid record of only one officer-involved shooting in the department since 2017 and in over 61,000 9-1-1 calls.

It was the Forest Park Police Department's first ever policy-related public forum not spurred by a specific incident or problem in the village. The goal of the meeting, according to Hoskins, was to hold a "narrow policy discussion" on use of force and Forest Park's policy on that issue.

The timing of the meeting, which many residents reported not knowing about until several days before it happened, coincided with an important District 91 school board meeting where reopening plans for the fall were being discussed, a meeting attended by over 120 Zoom listeners. Because of the conflict and complaints of COVID-related concerns regarding meeting in person, Mayor Rory Hoskins added a Zoom component to the meeting so interested parties could watch remotely.

The meeting followed a format of Police Chief Tom Aftanas, Deputy Chief Ken Gross and Lt. Christopher Chin reading and then answering email and online-submitted questions from residents. That format was mostly devoid of conflict until Forest Park Against Racism (FPAR) founder Ayanna Brown, who had submitted a large number of questions for the forum, pressed Aftanas on an answer she later reported was "woefully insufficient."

The particular question related to perceived threat and how the Forest Park police department is addressing and discussing that issue.

Aftanas answered, gesturing to Black members of the audience. "I don't perceive you as a threat," he said. "Or you. Or the mayor as a threat. If you stood up and started screaming at me, and getting closer, that is a perceived threat, and it doesn't matter if you're African American, white, Hispanic. A perceived threat can be also the type of call you're responding to. Was it a violent offense? Was it a domestic battery? A robbery? When you get there and see someone that matches the description given by the victim, your senses are heightened… I hope that explains it."

Brown responded: "It's a culture that exists in police departments across the nation. You may not have that perspective, but because it's a reported trend and pattern, how are you addressing it in the department and having the conversation about why African Americans and African American men particularly are often are often perceived as threats? Answer the question."

"Maybe I didn't understand [the question] fully," Aftanas said, "but it's through training and policy and common sense."

"How is the department supporting the process of developing common sense so that African Americans are not perceived as threats?" asked Brown. "Because apparently common sense isn't common."

Gross then addressed the residents on the topic: "I can't speak for the whole nation. I can speak for myself and my department." He said that since May 2017, there have been 61,195 9-1-1 calls to the village. And only one officer-involved shooting.

"I think that shows we are not going out and executing African Americans," Gross said.

That's when Hoskins stepped in, asking to "lower the temperature" of the meeting.

"This is our first time doing this. I don't want to turn it into anything antagonistic," Hoskins said, stating that the department was "prepared for a limited discussion on use of force policies."

"This is a good police department," Hoskins said, although he stated that the topic of internal bias is not something the department has directly been trained on.

"Internal bias is real," Hoskins said. "Some people don't understand it the way African Americans do."

In an interview the following day, Brown spoke more about perceived threat and why it's such an important topic in policing. Perceived threat, she said, is "subjective and is the linchpin of why so many African Americans are dead" at the hands of police.

"Police make judgment calls based on perceived threat regularly," Brown said. "African American men are always perceived as a threat, which automatically escalates a situation. There is no positive record of African American men having positive relationships with the police."

Brown said that in general, throughout the meeting, she found the answers of Aftanas and Gross to be "a bit Pollyanna."

"We need to move past the great things we have done and the low incidence numbers and be proactive and preventative in steps in policy that should be taken," Brown said. She said she heard a lot of "idealisms on what we've done well."

"Aftanas and Gross were very committed to their stories about what they, as individuals, don't do. But what we're fighting is a culture of policy that seeks to protect its own," she said.

Brown said she gives credit to the mayor's office for monitoring and taking questions via email and online and in setting up the meeting. "They deserve applause for effort," said Brown. She said Aftanas' response to a question about whether the department was open to a citizens council or external review board was positive. And she was glad to hear body cams are coming soon to the Forest Park Police Department.

"I'm pleased to know the wheels are in motion for body cams," Brown said. "But we need to make that happen with all deliberate speed."

In an interview the following day, Aftanas said he felt the meeting went well.

"Overall, it was positive and can lead to more trust in the future if open dialogue is maintained and people continue to give us a chance and not assume we're like the cops in Minneapolis," Aftanas said. "Discussion is always good."

Hoskins, too, said he thought the meeting went well.

"I feel good about the meeting and welcome criticism from residents," Hoskins said in an interview. He acknowledged that residents still have questions after the meeting.

One outstanding issue is minority hiring and why the police department doesn't have more Black or Hispanic officers. During the meeting and in the interview, Hoskins said the village is seeking legal advice about how to increase diversity in the force, despite the hiring process being largely dictated by state statute.

There will be more meetings in the future, said Hoskins, although dates and formats have yet to be determined.

"This is an ongoing issue that needs a long-term solution," said Hoskins. "There is room for dialogue."

Brown said she and FPAR are eager to follow up on a citizen's oversight board and that being a small community doesn't mean the town can't "be a torch."

"Forest Park is in a moment of opportunity," said Brown. "We have the capacity to lead. We're too damn small not to try."

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