Jose "Pepe" Flores. Photo from Facebook

Monday, Dec. 6 was supposed to be a day of healing for the Forest Park Police Department.

A little more than a week after the sudden loss of veteran officer Nick Kozak, who died at his home in Villa Park several days after testing positive for COVID-19, much of the then 33-person department gathered at his funeral to say goodbye to their friend and colleague Monday morning.

Among them was Jose “Pepe” Flores, a well-liked officer who grew up in Forest Park. Flores had worked the overnight shift Sunday, Dec. 5 into Monday morning, and so after Kozak’s funeral he went home, likely to get some sleep, before returning for another overnight shift late Monday night.

When the 46-year-old Flores didn’t arrive for work or answer his phone, concerned Forest Park police officers went to his house, planning to rouse him from bed and get him started on his shift. Instead, when officers arrived at his home in DuPage County, they walked in and found their friend and colleague dead in his bed.

After going more than a decade without an active member of the department dying, Forest Park police had lost their second officer in a matter of weeks.

“(Kozak’s death) was new for us and hit everyone really heavy,” Deputy Chief of Police Chris Chin said. “After his passing it’s, all right, after the funeral, it’s time to rebuild. Time to come out of this. And next thing you know Jose’s passed.”

Chin said he believed Flores’ death was from natural causes, although a final ruling on cause of death will be made by the county coroner. The DuPage County Coroner’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for additional information.

Kozak’s death also remains under investigation, according to the coroner’s office. The Villa Park Police Department would not release any information on Kozak’s death either, citing an ongoing investigation, although there is no indication foul play is involved.

The deaths have hit the department hard and Chief of Police Ken Gross, who only ascended to the top job last month, said his staff is managing as best it can.

“It’s a very hard time for the police department,” Gross said. “We lost two people within a short time, both very good officers. Jose was not just a friendly person; he grew up in Forest Park and was just a friend to many and a great policeman.”

Mayor Rory Hoskins, who said he got to know Flores and his now 8-year-old daughter through both of their involvement in youth soccer, saw Flores at Kozak’s funeral, just hours before his death. Hoskins, like everyone else interviewed for this story, said the 6-foot-6 Flores was an imposing presence but someone who was also warm, welcoming and respectful, even in contentious situations.

“It’s hard to say, sometimes you just like a person,” Hoskins said, when asked to explain Flores’ personality. “He wasn’t particularly loud. He listened. He was just friendly; he would try to help people. He was a good guy who had good character.”

As after Kozak’s passing, grieving friends and colleagues have been eulogizing Flores on social media in the days after his death. Forest Park Firefighters Local 2753 said in a Facebook post that Flores “was not only the biggest person in real life but also [had] the biggest heart.”

“I never saw him without a smile on his face and he was always joking around with us,” the post continues. “The streets were always safer when he was working.”

Hoskins said he met briefly with Flores’ parents, who still live in Forest Park, when they were at the police department Tuesday.

Throughout the day, neighboring police departments also sent peer support officers as part of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to Forest Park to help the men and women of the department process the two sudden losses in such close succession. The department also reached out to their in-office social worker, and utilized a chaplain they have begun working with, all to address the emotional toll the two deaths have taken.

“It was nice to see that mental health concerns are being addressed,” Hoskins said. “Ken Gross was very proactive in that regard.”

The department is also having to deal with the logistical challenges presented by two sudden losses. Even before Kozak’s death, the department, which is budgeted for 38 officers, had 34 on staff. Now that number is 32, and as a result the village is taking both short-term and long-term action.

“Our officers are working a lot of overtime,” Gross said. “We’re going to look at alternative shift scheduling, if need be, because I don’t want employee burnout.”

Hoskins said the village council is scheduled to approve the hiring of one new patrol officer at its upcoming meeting on Monday, Dec. 13, and he also said the village has begun engaging in discussions about making lateral hires, meaning bringing experienced officers into the department to fill open jobs.

Gross, for his part, blamed “the media and politicians,” without offering specifics, for the department’s challenges when it comes to attracting new officers. He said the most recent round of applications to join the department was less than half of what they had seen previously.

“Given the events that happened in the U.S. in 2020 and the picture that was painted of the police, people don’t want this job,” Gross said. “We’re having a harder time filling spots because of the message that was sent by the media and politicians throughout the U.S.”

Hoskins, meanwhile, took a softer approach, again reiterating his belief that Forest Park’s police perform their jobs admirably and should not be judged by the misdeeds of other officers in other departments, and asked the public to take a moment to appreciate and consider the human beings who are grieving right now.

“It’s really sad. I don’t think we’ve ever experienced the loss of two police officers in such a short time, so we’re all coming together. Everyone’s going to continue to do their jobs, obviously, but it’s tough,” he said.

“I would say to the wider community that if they have the opportunity to express a kind word to a police officer … I would encourage the community to wrap its arms around the Forest Park Police Department,” said the mayor.