There is something primal about being spit in the face. We understand that it engenders a response. That is why listening to the audio tape released by the Forest Park police department which certainly seems to reflect a juvenile spitting in the face of Officer Scott McClintock is so hard to listen to.

McClintock, a veteran officer with many allies and some worrying history, had just stopped a young woman suspected of shoplifting in Oak Park. It was combative from the start. The officer handcuffed the suspect. And when, allegedly, she spat in his face, he by his own admission instinctively raised his hand to, he said, block any more spittle. But in the audio he also acknowledges slapping her in the face. “I did crack her but it was instinct.” The suspect wound up on the ground.

There is an internal police investigation underway. A River Forest police officer who was at the scene will be interviewed as will the juvenile and a passing witness who videotaped part of the encounter. We will wait patiently for what Chief Tom Aftanas says may be a month for a final report.

But it is not too early to say that across a number of areas of encounters with citizens the Forest Park police department needs to speed its evolution toward stronger community policing. Measure it by reputation, by the number of lawsuits filed alleging overly aggressive policing, by the number of those suits which the village settles, by the declining racial diversity on this small force, by the continued employment of auxiliary cops as we reported last week, by, in this instance, a seeming inability to deescalate a fraught situation.

Our community will be making a mistake if this becomes a binary choice between “defending the blue” and making excuses for criminal actions. We will make a mistake if we see this issue only through a racial lens but a bigger mistake if we dismiss the reality that race is a conspicuous and challenging dimension of modern urban policing.

There is a middle place we need to thoughtfully go which acknowledges that our police need to do better while fully respecting the complexity and the danger in their work each day. 

The imminent swearing in of a new mayor, a black mayor, and a reshaped village council is an auspicious time for Forest Park to assess how its policing can improve. We have been and remain supportive of Chief Aftanas. We want to see him play a proactive role in leading this department into its future.  This change won’t happen on its own or be by accident. We need, as a community, to bring intentional effort, honest talk, inclusive instincts to this overdue discussion.