It has been an impossibly hard two weeks for the Forest Park Police Department. Our small and tight-knit department has lost two officers this month in unexpected deaths.
First was the death of Officer Nick Kozak. He died in his Villa Park home days after testing positive for COVID-19, though the official cause of death is still pending from the DuPage County medical examiner.
Then on Dec. 6, a day most of the department’s personnel had gathered for Kozak’s funeral, came the stunning news of the death of Officer Jose “Pepe” Flores. After working the night shift, Flores attended Kozak’s memorial and then headed to his DuPage County home. When he did not report to his next shift late that day, officers headed to his home and found him dead in bed. He was 46.
In a department budgeted for 38 officers, already depleted to 34, suddenly losing two additional colleagues has been devastating. But beyond the logistical issues of covering shifts and the financial issues of paying overtime, we have a police force in shock and mourning.
Both officers were well-liked and respected. An outpouring of caring has followed each death from the community, from firefighters, from neighboring police departments.
Flores, who grew up in Forest Park and still has family here, was widely seen as an especially connected and compassionate police officer. Super-sized at 6-feet, 6-inches, he was clearly a presence. But according to so many, he led with kindness, good humor and empathy. He has been described on social media as an ideal for policing in our contentious times.
Forest Park’s police department is at a crossroads. In recent months a new chief and deputy have risen through the ranks. Certainly, additional officers will need to be recruited. At a moment when every employer faces challenges in finding candidates, this police department is no different. Chief Ken Gross said the hiring of one new officer is pending, but recruitment is difficult for his department and all others.
Gross has been critical of media and politicians for allegedly poisoning the public against police officers. We urge him to turn down this rhetoric. The debate over policing in America, and in Forest Park, is critical and overdue. The opportunity that he controls is to restore staffing in his department and to shape this department in the image of officers such as Pepe Flores.
Mayor Rory Hoskins, meanwhile, has urged a time of healing and support for this essential department. “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.”
That is a message worth hearing and acting on.