Suburban police take lessons on diversity, communication from Ferguson

Updated 11/26/2014 8:36 AM
  • Traci Ellis

    Traci Ellis

  • Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko

      Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Benedictine University is in Lisle.

As tempers continue to flare in Ferguson, Missouri, over the death of Michael Brown and a grand jury's decision not to indict the officer who shot him, the controversy has several suburban officials discussing what can be done to prevent such a tragedy here.

"Transparency, open communication and trust between the community and local police are paramount," said Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko.

Filenko said that can be done by working with community faith organizations and hosting events at the police station for the community.

"Ferguson police reportedly had a poor relationship with the community prior to the Michael Brown shooting. Had there been a trusting relationship, then there would have been a community pause that would have allowed the police chief to make his case," said Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz. "And that's the lesson here. Continually earn, build and cultivate a trusting relationship between the police department and the community."

Several departments also said neighborhood policing -- or having specific officers work and get to know specific neighborhoods -- also helps build a stronger relationship between police and the community.

Aside from building a trusting relationship, departments also need to work to build a police force that reflects the diversity of the town, officials said.

That was not the case in Ferguson, and is still not the case in many suburbs, according to a study of American police forces done by the U.S. Department of Justice using 2007 data, the latest available.

Among 16 suburban communities in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, the average white population was 64 percent, but the ranks of sworn officers in the police departments serving those communities were more than 90 percent white, according to the study. The majority of sheriff's deputies in those counties are also white, while the percentage of minority deputies rarely matches the county's minority populations.

Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod said there's always a time delay between the population changes that happen naturally and the adaptations that can be made to staff as a result. And it takes longer to make such changes on the fire and police departments because there's relatively little turnover, he said.

"If you are a sizable community that is not being represented, whether there in the police or city government, that's where the mistrust comes in," said Jamie Garcia, executive director of Centro de Información, an Elgin-based nonprofit.

Recruiting should start early, with kids and teens who learn the basics of the job through police Explorer programs, Garcia said. Elgin's version, he said, has done a good job of attracting Hispanic youth. He also praised an initiative that has officers living in city-owned homes in troubled neighborhoods.

"They have a pulse on what's going on," he said.

DuPage County Sheriff's Office Chief Al Angus said he believes the sheriff's office has a fruitful relationship with the communities it serves. He credited most of that to the department's community outreach programs that "address all concerns that come in from all demographics of the community."

"We have more than 100,000 unincorporated residents who span the gamut from subsidized housing to multimillion dollar homes. By our very nature, we have to be diverse," Angus said. "And our force is a pretty diverse group that covers pretty much every gender, sex and color of skin. We are truly an equal-opportunity employer."

Building trust and a diverse police force are good preventive steps, but once a crisis occurs, departments need to know how to handle it, perhaps better than was done in Ferguson, suburban residents said.

"People should expect -- and demand -- a higher degree of responsibility from all local police departments, Traci Ellis of Elgin said.

"They need to use deadly force equitably, judicially and with restraint," said Ellis, who works as assistant director for the Center for Affirmative Action & Diversity Resources at Northern Illinois University.

"They need to be better trained to de-escalate situations and have cultural competency and sensitivity training to overcome their own irrational fear of people of color," she said.

Mary Shesgreen, a member of Occupy Elgin, said the group is organizing a "Justice For Michael Brown" rally at 1 p.m. Saturday on Kimball Avenue across from the Gail Borden Public Library.

"I think highly of our police chief here in Elgin, Jeff Swoboda. I think he's working very hard to try to make our own police force more representative of the demographics in Elgin," she said.

Still, racial profiling can happen anywhere, she said.

"Individual police officers can still be racist, even when the policy is designed to try to eliminate racism," she said.

The Rev. Lionel Sweeny of Second Baptist Church of Elgin said the police department has an open line of communication with local church leaders, but needs to take more concrete action.

"They have some good concepts, but they have to become reality," she said. "Do people believe and trust (in the police)? No. It's not there. And it's because of past history."

That history dates back further than just what happened in Ferguson, said Patrick Polasek, assistant professor of criminal justice at Benedictine University in Lisle.

"Historically, the level of trust was, and I believe still is, low," he said. "The fact is that police brutality has been a part of the law enforcement culture where blacks are concerned, for a hundred years. In 2012, one estimate is 313 killings of blacks by police and security guards. It is routine for African-American parents today to give a detailed instruction to their children on how to not get killed if you are stopped by the police. That is not hyperbole. A long history of abuse has strained the relationship, no question about it."

If police departments don't have a diverse staff, they need to take the extra step to understand the populations they represent, Polasek said.

"All police officers need to take a class or course in race and ethnic relations. If police had a better understanding of racial issues, perhaps there would not be as much differential treatment," he said.

Another problem in Ferguson was that there was no video recording of exactly what happened that day so the case had turned into a he-said, she-said debate. Several police departments, including Elgin, are testing body-worn cameras for officers.

Angus said the DuPage County sheriff's department also is "looking at all of (their) options as it relates to (body cameras) through the state's attorney's office" because of eavesdropping concerns brought forth by the legislature.

"Obviously there's pros and cons to the whole thing, but all of our squads have cameras in them as it is now," he said.

As officials in Ferguson and around the country continue to debate Michael Brown's death and its fallout, Palatine Police Chief Alan Stoeckel said suburban police departments can take lessons from the controversy to improve their own operations.

"You learn from your successes and you learn by yours and others mistakes," he said.

• Daily Herald staff writers Russell Lissau, Eric Peterson, Robert Sanchez, Katlyn Smith, Doug Graham, Jessica Cilella, Elena Ferrarin, Justin Kmitch and Jake Griffin contributed to this report.

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