The good suburban police chiefs found in a tense 2020
Suburban police chiefs said that, not surprisingly, 2020 was a stressful year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and local and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
As first responders, officers worry about bringing the respiratory disease into their homes. The job was made more difficult by limits on in-person interactions. And the pressure of anti-police sentiment that culminated after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was trying, they said.
But it was also a year that saw many departments take new action, working to add technology and strengthen relationships with communities.
Wheeling and Naperville moved forward with plans to outfit their officers with body cameras. Naperville also is adding social workers.
Elgin police, which has had body cameras since 2017, formed new resident-led community advisory boards.
Arlington Heights added a "duty to intervene" policy for officers. In Wauconda, the police chief joined a school district committee designed to address equity issues within the community.
Also, the police chiefs said, last year highlighted the need to continue providing officers with the training and support they need to do their jobs effectively.
The main challenge of the pandemic is keeping officers safe while continuing to provide services to residents and keeping abreast of changing public health policy guidance, the police chiefs said.
Early on in the pandemic, Elgin police hosted a Zoom session for officers' families, and the police and fire chiefs hosted joint weekly Facebook live sessions to keep residents informed, Police Chief Ana Lalley said. "It's about being creative," she said.
Just like many other professions, police pivoted to conducting meetings and trainings with technology such as FaceTime, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Power DMS, Naperville Police Chief Robert Marshall said.
The suburbs generally saw a decrease in traffic crashes, an increase in domestic violence calls, and a surge in identity theft during the pandemic.
Departments like Wheeling that allow submitting police reports online saw a big increase in that. Arlington Heights expects to have that available in February, Police Chief Nick Pecora said.
On a personal level, police officers have experienced the same social isolation experienced by all community members, Lake Zurich Police Chief Steve Husak said.
Police also were on the front lines of feeling the frustration of those unhappy with public policy. "As the face of government, this has led us to feel the impact of their discontent at a very personal level," Wheeling Police Chief James Dunne said.
'We have all felt it'
While there were hundreds of protests all across the suburbs, those in early June in Naperville and Aurora were marked by looting and violence.
In response, Naperville police participated in communitywide forums and conducted "listening tours" to gather feedback, particularly from Black and brown residents, on police policy and tactics, Marshall said.
Husak was critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. "The movement's rhetoric implies white police officers are inherently racist and this racism is the motivating factor behind police shootings," he said. "Painting with a broad brush is rarely a productive or constructive measure."
Pecora agreed, saying, "Anyone in uniform was painted with the same brush." He added, "The great thing about our country is that we have these inalienable rights, and right at the top of that is your First Amendment. One of our jobs is to protect that right."
Elgin police were the target of protests after the 2018 killing of a Black woman by a white police officer, which prompted a lot of hard conversations with the community, Lalley said.
"We are operating in that realm and we embrace it," Lalley said. "It's a very hard thing to do. I've had officers not happy with me. But challenging people to have conversations about race and equity ... to me, there is no way we can ever get better if we don't have these conversations, and we don't listen to some of the things that are upsetting to people."
Dunne said that in some cases, officers shared the protesters' outrage and frustration. "Individually, we have all felt it as family members, friends and neighbors have questioned us in regards to these events and ask us to explain what in some cases is unexplainable," he said.
All the police chiefs underscored the importance of providing effective, timely training to officers.
Husak pointed to areas such as civil and human rights, mental health awareness and response, and cultural competency. Naperville's budget this year includes a virtual training platform and additional crisis intervention training, which Elgin has implemented on a large scale.
"We are constantly revising and reevaluating what we do to ensure that we are following both the law and best practices," Dunne said.
An important part of 2020 was providing support for officers via counseling and peer support programs, and that will continue in 2021, the police chiefs said.
"So many have been infected with the virus, including police employees and their families, which caused additional stress and concern," Marshall said.
"It's a year definitely of a lot of change, and that can wear on people," Lalley said.
That's in addition to changes in policing over time, such as the need for increased documentation, less emphasis on putting individuals in jail, and generally more disrespect for the law and police officers, Wauconda Police Chief David Wermes said.
There's certainly been an ebb and flow in attitudes toward policing, from officers being demonized after the Rodney King beating in the 1990s to being hailed as heroes after 9/11, Pecora said.
Last year, there were also many expressions of gratitude from residents, which police departments deeply appreciate, the police chiefs said.
All said they were proud of how their officers handled the challenges of 2020.
"We kept our chins up and our head in the game," Pecora said.
"Each of us had to sacrifice in ways great and small," Husak said. "It is through this sacrifice that each of us may be reminded of those things that really matter."