As Forest Park residents emotionally digest what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis, many are asking, “Could the same thing happen in the village with small-town charm?”
One issue being discussed in the aftermath of Floyd’s death is the culture of police departments. Forest Park Police Chief Tom Aftanas provided a window into the culture of the department when he recalled how he reacted personally the first time he saw the video of George Floyd’s death.
“It was embarrassing,” said Aftanas. “As I watched Derek Chauvin hold his knee on Floyd’s neck, I kept thinking OK, now Chauvin is going to get up. One minute, two minutes, three minutes passed. When onlookers on the sidewalk started telling Chauvin that the man can’t breathe, ease up a little bit, Chauvin didn’t say a word but kept staring back at him. It’s almost like he was thinking, ‘You can’t tell me what to do.'”
“What makes it so tragic,” he continued, “and what is pissing people off so much is, putting training or lack of training aside, where’s common sense? All he had to do is sit him up and put him against the car or stand him up and put him in the back seat. I never saw Floyd flail or resist or give them a hard time. I don’t know what happened prior but who cares about that? At that point Floyd was compliant.”
Aftanas said he has talked about the incident with all 35 officers at roll calls and none of them ever tried to justify Chauvin’s actions.
He and Deputy Chief Ken Gross went through the list of issues being raised by activists, one by one:
Choke holds – State law and the FPPD policy prohibit the use of choke holds unless deadly force is justified (720 ILCS 5/7-5.5).
Bad apples – Officers who are found to have broken policy can be sent to training to correct problems, go through coaching and counseling with a supervisor, receive a letter of reprimand, receive a suspension, be terminated or be fired depending on the seriousness of the violation. Aftanas added that bad apples often see what’s coming and resign before they are fired.
Use-of-force policy – This applies to situations in which officers must respond to resistance and aggression. If an offender is informed that they are under arrest and simply put their hands behind their back no force is used. If an officer encounters resistance they respond given the tools that they have. Officers can also decrease the amount of force used when a situation is de-escalating. Because humans (emotions, mental health, alcohol, narcotics, prescription medications, etc.) and situations are often never the same, it is nearly impossible to create every scenario involving an officer using force that can be created.
At the low end of the spectrum is an officer’s presence and verbal commands. At the high end is deadly force. With deadly force, the intent is to eliminate a threat and not kill. If deadly force is used, the officer will be able to articulate that they were in fear of death or great bodily harm to themselves or another.
Tear gas – “The Forest Park PD has never utilized tear gas in my time here,” said Gross. “We have officers certified in the use of OC Spray, but few carry it.”
Training – Forest Park police officers attend off-site and online training throughout the year. In-house trainings at least twice a year cover firearms. Use of force and taser use is also covered yearly.
Licensing – All law enforcement officers in Illinois are certified by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board
Why so few black officers? – The hiring process for law enforcement officers is outlined by state law. The Forest Park Board of Fire and Police Commissioners and not the police department is in charge of the hiring process. The village uses an outside service for the acceptance of applications. Aftanas said he is mystified why only three out of the last batch of 50 applicants were African American but noted that many new hires have been Hispanic.
Body cameras – The FPPD has been approved for a grant to purchase body-worn cameras but cannot purchase them until that money is received. Gross added, the body cams will be advantageous to officers for video evidence in court proceedings and to help determine if an officer is falsely accused of wrong-doing. They will help the public in proving wrong-doing on behalf of an officer(s).
False police reports – Aftanas said filing a false report of an incident like what happened in the George Floyd situation is not only grounds for being fired, but also a criminal offense.
Defunding – Aftanas said that if defunding means spending more money on people like social workers to get at the root of systemic problems, FPPD already has a social worker on staff. In addition, he pointed out that when officers are called to a domestic dispute or a car crash, they are often the first responder on the scene and have to deal with the immediate situation as best they can. He said his officers have saved lives by applying tourniquets before the EMTs arrived. A first responder has to be a jack of all trades.
Commissioner Joe Byrnes became a Forest Park police officer in 1974, and he has seen a lot changes in the department that apply to the issues raised by George Floyd’s death. One change has been an increased requirement for both education and continuing in-service training.
“We also made big inroads in hiring minorities, African American, Hispanic, Asian and especially female. These were some of the things that happened. With the hiring of new officers, [there was] a change in attitudes,” said Byrnes.
Mayor Rory Hoskins said he did not experienced any racial profiling in Forest Park before he became the mayor, but indicated that without vigilant attention, the good that has been achieved could be lost. Hoskins bases some of that outlook on what happened to him many years ago as a 17-year-old.
“In my high school I was captain of the soccer team, and I often jogged through our subdivision during the evening to maintain fitness. On one occasion a police car pulled up behind me and signaled me to stop. I complied. The officer was white. I did not know him. He asked me what I was doing — just like what happened to Ahmaud Arbery when he was murdered. I replied that I was jogging. The officer asked me if I lived in the area. I pointed to my family’s home which happened to be less than 40 yards away. I don’t remember what the officer said after that but I’m pretty sure he did not offer any sort of apology.
“I watched part of former President Obama’s townhall last week,” Hoskins added. Now he keeps the actions, which My Brother’s Keeper Alliance recommends, taped to the credenza behind his desk:
- REVIEW your police use-of-force policies.
- ENGAGE your communities by including a diverse range of input, experiences, and stories in your review.
- REPORT the findings of your review to your community and seek feedback.
- REFORM your community’s police use-of-force policies.
“At some point,” Hoskins said, “we will hold a town hall to discuss policing and the Forest Park Police Department.”