The following interview was conducted last December:

In the wake of the killings of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, by white police officers and the subsequent grand juries, which did not indict the involved officers, many are questioning, among other things, how much effort police departments are investing in community relations.

Heather Ash lived in Ferguson for a long time, so she knows the town in which Michael Brown was killed. When she lived in Forest Park she got to know the Forest Park police quite well through a community relations program the FPPD runs called the Citizens Police Academy (CPA).

“As for the Michael Brown shooting,” she said, “the minute I heard people saying that he was unarmed, my reply was, ‘That means nothing.’ My reply was a direct result of having taken CPA and learning the many ways police officers can be injured or killed by unarmed people.”

Tom Aftanas, the deputy chief of the Forest Park Police Dept., sat down with the Review to describe how CPA works and the other ways the local police force is trying to build trust and respect between officers and residents.

Aftanas pointed out that Forest Park police have been addressing the issue for a long time. When Aftanas joined the FPPD in 1991, Joe Byrnes, who retired with the rank of Deputy Chief in 1999, was leading the Neighborhood Watch Program, which attempted to involve residents in community policing and build relationships of trust and cooperation with residents of Forest Park. One of those ways was through community walks. 

“At one walk,” Byrnes recalled, “we had about 190 residents.”

In those days the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Program) was being implemented in a partnership between District 91 and the FPPD with Officer Cheryl Baker, an African American, spending a lot of time in the schools.

Along with the Neighborhood Watch program, which is still going and with Byrnes still active (now as a newly elected village commissioner), the FPPD runs CPAs, such as the one in which Ash participated, once or twice a year with up to 20 residents participating.

In one CPA class Commander Mike Keating created a “crime scene” with a dummy slouched over a table with fake blood on it, and walked the class through the steps an investigator takes to gather evidence. Another class showed them how the K9 unit’s officer has his dog sniff out drugs.

Kim Rostello, who has lived in Forest Park for 21years, said, “I remember one activity in which we did a pretend traffic stop. We in the class had to pretend we were stopping the car in front of us as a routine traffic stop. We were given toy firearms and had to approach the vehicle without really knowing what would be happening. I can say it was scary to do the whole exercise. It really showed me what the officers encounter, the unknown circumstances that can occur, how fast you have to think on your feet and the quick instant decisions they have to make. I can truly say it opened my eyes to what the police have to do and how dangerous their job can be, even with what seems to be a routine traffic stop.”

Cmdr. Keating puts participants through “scenario based training,” an exercise which FPPD officers are also required to do periodically. 

“We put up a big screen in the basement on which shoot/don’t shoot scenarios are presented. They are given an electronic gun which, if you pull the trigger, makes little red dots appear on the screen where the bullets would have gone. Some of the people in the class would actually be shaking afterwards because even though the situation is fake, you’re concentrating. Should I or shouldn’t I. It’s the biggest decision you’re going to make in your life and it has to be made in seconds.”

Some class participants even get to ride along in a squad car. “During my ride-along,” said Ash, “I was in the police car that chased those three guys who robbed the Subway at gunpoint! Everything they talked about in class played out in front of me, from the high-speed pursuit to the neighborhood search to combing the getaway car for evidence.”

In addition to forming relationships with residents, the FPPD gives ongoing public relations training on a regular basis to its officers. “We send officers to what’s called a verbal judo class,” said Aftanas. “It’s a good class and it works because in some situations officers can talk their way out of situations that might escalate. The class shows officers different techniques to de-escalate the situation by not yelling or screaming over the person.”

Eric Adams, a former New York cop and presently the Brooklyn Borough president, said in an interview on NPR, “We police in America leave the station house with this symbolic toolbox we can use, based on the circumstances. … In many communities of color, the only tool we use is the hammer.”

Clearly, the officers in Forest Park are trained to use tools other than the hammer, but Aftanas acknowledged, “Some get it better than others and those who come across as being sarcastic, with time they do change. If they don’t, they’re going to get disciplined and that has happened.”

After praising the FPPD, Rostello, who earned a PhD in holistic theology, added, “I don’t want this to sound like I think they can do no wrong. I do think they are human and we all make the decisions that we do on the spur of the moment with the best information that we have.”

To file a complaint, all a person has to do is go to village hall, find the shift sergeant and fill out a form.

Noting that President Obama is talking about officers using body cameras, Aftanas pointed out the window to squad cars parked behind village hall and said that each one is equipped with a camera that records every traffic stop. He said the recorded video is often used as evidence for a subpoena but it could also be used in a situation where a traffic stop goes tragically wrong.

“You’re not just trained once in public relations,” he concluded. “It’s continuous throughout your career. We’re part of the community. We want the business people and the residents to feel comfortable enough with us to talk about their problems and see if we can solve them. The goal is trust and respect.”

Diversity on the force

Regarding the issue of how well the composition of the Forest Park Police Department reflects the makeup of the community, according to the 2010 census Forest Park is 45% white, 35% black, 12% Hispanic and 7% Asian. Among the 39 full-time sworn officers in the FPPD, three are African American, one is Peruvian, one is Hispanic, one is Korean and one is Chinese. Three are female.