A policeman for 22 years, Sgt. Michael Keating has made a fair number of arrests. Occasionally, though, he is still struck by the impact his job allows him to make. During a trip to Wisconsin he was enjoying a late dinner with his brother and son at a restaurant when a stranger approached. Keating said he remembers feeling scared as the man asked him a nebulous question.
“He said, ‘Keating do you remember me?” the veteran sergeant recalled. “I remember thinking, here I am in the middle of nowhere, it’s 30 degrees below outside, and there are only, like, two other people in the whole place. I tried to put a face to the guy. I told my brother that my gun was in my truck. If something happened, get my son out of here.”
Keating had arrested the man in Forest Park on a drug charge two years prior. Since his arrest, the man transformed his life, moved to Wisconsin, was running his own business and had reconciled with his wife. The stranger paid for Keating’s meal.
Though that particular arrest didn’t stand out in Keating’s memory, the story is an example of how important the relationship between the police and the public can be, said Chief Jim Ryan. Earlier this month, the police department used the National Night Out campaign as an opportunity to create more of those relationships.
“The little things you do as a police officer, sometimes you don’t think they mean that much,” Keating said. “But for that guy, because we treated him properly, it was a life-changing event.”
On Aug. 5 the Forest Park Police Department participated in the 25th annual National Night Out event at the Park District as part of a crime and drug prevention exercise held across America. Residents were invited to enjoy the free food, rides and games, but more importantly, to learn about crime prevention and meet their neighborhood cop.
“We want neighbors to get to know one another,” Ryan said. “It’s always good to have the police also interact with the public and get to know us as individuals.”
With a particular focus on helping children, the police department has implemented several initiatives to build new bonds in the community. At Forest Park Middle School, the police have a resource officer who monitors the kids’ behavior during the school day. With the aid of Sen. Kim Lightford, D-4th District, the police also received an anti-bullying grant.
“The bully grant allows us to use an officer to monitor the kids after school and how they interact with each other,” Ryan said. “We make sure that there aren’t any problems and keep an eye on after school activities. The grant is geared toward resolving any ‘bully’ school issues, while encouraging the police to interact with the community.”
With hundreds of children attending National Night Out at the Park District, the groups seemed to enjoy one another’s company.
“This is a good night because we get to celebrate Forest Park, have fun and eat some good food,” Damandre Henley, a Field Stevenson student said. “The police do a great job. If there is a problem or a fight, they come in, like, three seconds and break it up.”
In addition to addressing children’s issues, the police department has worked to encourage adults to assume an active role in the safety of their community. At crime prevention meetings residents are encouraged to voice their concerns and report any suspicious activity. Ruth Hopp, a longtime village resident, said she’s more comfortable calling authorities now than she ever was.
“We went to a neighborhood meeting for one of the village areas, and we were very impressed,” Hopp said. “We were brought up in Chicago where you turned your head if you saw something wrong. We just didn’t have that connection with the police. That’s why I hated to call the police, because I was scared.”
Hopp, who has lived with her husband, Norman, in Forest Park since 1970, is no longer practicing the code of silence.
“In Forest Park, we are very active about saying something,” she said. “We got to know Sgt. Keating because we had some stuff going on by us. He gave us his card and said, ‘Call me and let me know if there is a problem.'”
At a recent village council meeting, a resident was given an award for placing a phone call that resulted in the apprehension of two suspected burglars. In thanking her for being vigilant, Mayor Anthony Calderone encouraged others to do the same.
“Since I’ve been here, the quality of life has gotten much better for residents,” Forest Park Police Sgt. Steve Zanoni said. “I know that my opinion is one of a village employee, but things really have changed for the better.”
Mike Radkiewicz, a lifelong resident, lauded the idea of National Night Out as a creative way for residents to get to know their police. There is always room for improvement, though, he said. Radkiewicz said a brick was tossed through one of his windows once, and he was disappointed by the response from law enforcement.
Norman Hopp, Ruth’s husband, said utopia isn’t likely to break out in any neighborhood, but overall Forest Park is a safe place to live.
“The police are doing a good job,” Norman Hopp said. “There’s good and bad everywhere. Let’s face it, the world changes and everything else changes, too.”