By Tom Holmes
The killing of a suspect by a Forest Park police officer on Feb. 3 reminded residents that police sometimes resort to the use of lethal force, even in a village with small-town charm. It also brought home the reality that police officers sometimes have to make life-or-death decisions in the blink of an eye.
The Review sat down with Police Chief Tom Aftanas and Lieutenant Steve Weiler last year to talk about how Forest Park officers prepare to respond to the kind of incident that happened on Feb. 3.
Every shift at the police station on Desplaines Avenue begins with what is referred to as roll call, and at virtually every roll call, some kind of training or refreshing or information sharing is conducted. Regarding lethal force, periodically statutes, rules and guidelines regarding taser or deadly force are reviewed.
"The department has 144 videos available online," said Aftanas, "which are designed to be watched every couple days. We're constantly reintroducing the idea of the use of deadly force — whether it's hands-on techniques or the use of a weapon — and the rules governing their use. There is regular training on constitutional law, the proper use of authority, and procedural justice."
The most realistic training is a video game-style projection on a big screen. The officer in ongoing training has a "gun" which is really a laser and scenarios are presented on the screen that require the officer to make split-second decisions regarding whether to shoot or not shoot. If the officer decides not to shoot and the person on the screen has a weapon, the officer might be "dead." On the other hand, if the person on the screen does not have a weapon and the officer shoots, they've just "killed" a potentially innocent suspect.
Aftanas said that when the FPPD allowed a few ordinary citizens to experience "shoot/don't shoot," they finished the simulation "shaking and in a sweat."
Aftanas and Weiler said the FPPD does not currently have officers wearing body cameras, mainly because from a cost/benefit perspective, they aren't worth it. Each camera costs $1,000; they take up a huge amount of server space; and they only capture what is right in front of the officer. Squad cars are equipped with cameras, but again they only record what is happening in front of the car. Aftanas said there is no simple way to solve the problem of independent verification in many "he said/she said" situations.
When a suspect is driving right toward an officer, of course, non-lethal force is not an option, but Forest Park officers are trained to go through a progression of degrees of force when dealing with situations.
They are trained to first just show up. The appearance of an officer in uniform will resolve most conflict situations. If that doesn't work, they are trained in techniques like "verbal judo" designed to scale down the tension by talking. Then comes light touch, followed by hard touch, then taser, and finally lethal force.
When asked who the FPPD is accountable to, Aftanas, without hesitation, said "you," meaning both the Forest Park Review and other media and you, the citizens. Weiler added, "When an officer does a traffic stop, a report/data sheet is submitted to the Illinois Department of Transportation. If there is an internal incident, we bring in an outside agency to investigate. That is our call, but people not affiliated with FPPD have also called outside agencies."
The necessity of obtaining liability insurance serves, in an indirect way, as a form of oversight. If FPPD doesn't do things "by the book," the premiums paid by the village will increase significantly.
Racial diversity with FPPD
To the question of racial diversity in the department, Weiler explained that state law and the Illinois Civil Service Commission mandates that race and gender cannot be factored into the hiring of officers. The only allowable preferences are to people with bachelor degrees, master degrees or military service. Other than that, those who are first in line are those who have scored highest on the test.
Aftanas said that when FPPD has a job opening it is advertised on a website called theblueline, which goes out to historically black colleges, the city colleges of Chicago — 71 pages of universities in all.