Credit to the mayor. Credit to the police chief. Credit to Forest Park Against Racism. Credit to other citizens who turned out last week at village hall. It was billed as the first in a series of meetings between our police department and those being policed.
Except next time let’s do it differently. Do it better. The meeting last week took the awkwardness of the pandemic and ratcheted it up a few notches. Everyone is sitting six or more feet apart. Everyone is wearing a mask. Not the ideal for heartfelt communication. Better than a Zoom meeting but not much.
Add in the requirement of only written questions, better in advance, better delivered online. The meeting bent a bit as organizers began collecting written questions from the room. But it never achieved a conversational tone. It was never a dialogue. It was the word from on high, the cops talking at citizens.
It was not about listening. And right now, if you’re a cop and you’re white — and we’ve just defined the Forest Park police department – the only thing that matters is listening.
The planned focus of the evening was on the Forest Park police department’s policy on use of force. That’s important. And maybe it is an acceptable bar that Forest Park cops haven’t shot a citizen since May 2017, 60,000+ 911 calls ago. We’re not sure how you decide if that is good or not good enough.
But the lost opportunity was to build on the intense energy of the “Meet Us at the Bridge” protest last month with the genuine good will that exists in Forest Park circles. We don’t need the use of force policy reviewed for us at this point by the department which wrote the policy.
We need the three leaders of the department to engage with these activist citizens, to ask open-ended questions on how Black and Brown people in Forest Park perceive their police force. Do they feel known and protected or do they feel policed?
We believe after observing last week’s meeting that the outcome of such a conversation could be outstanding. We say again that Chief Tom Aftanas is a good man. But to lead in this moment, to be the servant leader required, he needs a bit of an epiphany.
We don’t need to hear him say that he is does not feel a perceived threat when he encounters a black citizen. We need him to hear black citizens say they feel a perceived threat when they see him and his officers. We need him to feel that in his heart and in his head.
The message of this meeting was all about how well trained the Forest Park force is — though Mayor Rory Hoskins acknowledged the department has not yet trained for implicit bias. We think it is all about relationships. And this, effectively, all white department needs to build relationships with its citizens of color.
These well-intentioned meetings can grow into the foundation of those relationships.