Outside the Forest Park Police Department’s offices at village hall there is a shadow box, affixed to an adjacent wall, which commemorates the three officers who have been killed in the line of duty since the department’s inception. The fatalities, which occurred in separate incidents, all happened decades ago, with the most recent in the early 1980s.
At the village council’s Aug. 24 meeting, Mayor Anthony Calderone announced a Sept. 19 dedication ceremony for “Remembrance Park.” The park, located at Randolph Street and Circle Avenue, will include a memorial for the three officers, along with a firefighter who also died while serving Forest Park.
Police Chief Tom Aftanas told the Review he is thankful for the soon-to-be dedicated memorial.
“It is nice that the community, the residents, and the business community pitched in and are doing this for us. … Any visitors who are at the park will see [the memorial] and know what happened.”
Remembrance Park’s dedication will occur during a time of increased national attention toward law enforcement tactics as well as relations between police officers and the general public. Throughout the last 18 months, media coverage of incidents in places like Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; and Baltimore, have acted as a catalyst for a national conversation on both violence perpetrated by and against police officers.
More recently, a few incidents occurred closer to Forest Park. Earlier this month, unidentified individuals killed a Fox Lake police officer. In July, in neighboring River Forest, a 24-year-old man wounded his mother and killed her boyfriend before firing at responding officers. In the latter event, no officers were killed, but two policemen sustained injuries as a result.
Aftanas, who was appointed chief in June, told the Review his department acknowledges these types of incidents, but officer behavior is not affected.
“I would say that the incident that had the most impact here [at the police department] was the River Forest shooting. Our officers were literally seconds behind the River Forest officers. When they pulled on to Lathrop, they heard the shots being fired.
“On a Sunday morning at 7 in the morning, River Forest would be the last place I would think something like that would happen. It just goes to show you — and it shows all officers, here, River Forest, Oak Park, all in this immediate area — that something bad can happen, anytime, anyplace.”
Aftanas said officers can become “complacent” over time and explained that at daily “roll call,” officers are reminded that even a minor situation “can turn deadly in a heartbeat.”
He believes officers in the department are comfortable discussing these tragic incidents with colleagues and often use them as learning opportunities. The department also utilizes training videos to help officers navigate stressful situations. Each video focuses on a specific topic such as use-of-force or how to effectively respond during a shootout. In addition, the department operates a class called “Verbal Judo.”
“[The class] teaches [officers] techniques to de-escalate a person who might be agitated or aggressive by verbal means to try and talk them down and calm them down so things do not escalate to a physical confrontation,” Aftanas explained.
Acknowledging the importance of positive social interactions with Forest Park residents, he mentioned the Citizen Police Academy, a 10-week course taught by several officers, designed to educated community members on various law enforcement topics like traffic stops. The department also periodically conducts demonstrations throughout the village, including at local schools and public events, on bike-safety, teenage driving or as was the case this summer, the department’s K9 unit.
Interactions with police often occur only as a result of regrettable situations like bicycle thefts or residential burglaries. These activities, he explained, provide an important opportunity for relationship building between community members and police officers.
As the department’s top official, Aftanas is ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety of Forest Park’s several dozen officers. He admitted he does contemplate the dangerous aspects of policing.
“I can’t help but think of that at times. … We just stress to the officer whether you think you are responding to the most minor call, just be cognizant. … Something can happen at any time. I don’t dwell on that all the time, but you do think about it.”
Asked if he has recognized any shifts in relations between the public and police authorities during his extensive law enforcement career, he specifically mentioned the presence of video cameras during interactions with residents.
“[Officers on] the midnight shift [will] say if they are at a bar for some reason, immediately, multiple people will take out cellphones and start videotaping them. … Anytime [officers] are called to a scene, someone is videotaping them.”
Though this phenomenon is occurring more frequently, he said, it has not affected officer behavior.
“Honestly, they don’t care.”
Although some departments, including communities in California and New Jersey, have begun to use body cameras, Aftanas said Forest Park will not be adopting the technology anytime soon. For now, outfitting the department with camera hardware, as well as the necessary servers to store footage, remains cost-prohibitive.
“I think at some point in the near future, that [cameras] may be mandated and if that is the case, hopefully they would open up some sort of grant or federal funding,” he added.