By Jocelyn A. Davis, Communications & Public Information Director, City of Oak Park
THE CHALLENGING EVENTS OF 2020 WILL UNDOUBTEDLY STAY WITH US FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES. A relentless, global pandemic brought many of us closer to our loved ones, as we embraced “togetherness” while sheltering in place. At the same time it unjustly robbed too many of us of our family and friends.
We collectively experienced the tragedy of losing several national role models for our youth, such as Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. And we empathized with people around the world who marched for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a corrupt Minneapolis police officer.
We felt all these events right here in our own tight-knit, Oak Park community.
Oak Park Public Safety Director Steve Cooper, a 30-year veteran of the Department, believes that in times like these, community engagement is critical. I recently sat down with him to discuss his views on the role and responsibilities of Public Safety in times of crisis and his vision for the relationship between the community and law enforcement.
Director Cooper, what is community policing?
Director Cooper: Community policing is relationship-building. It’s ensuring that officers are active and integral members of the community – not just when crimes are committed, but also when there are opportunities to engage with residents and create positive experiences. We’re committed to making and maintaining connections with our residents, which was the impetus for appointing two Community Resource Officers whose roles are to attend community events, establish presence in our schools, and bond authentically with residents.
Governor Whitmer issued a shelter-in-place order this Spring in an effort to save Michigan lives. How did Public Safety respond to the pandemic relative to maintaining the health and safety of residents and Public Safety Officers?
Of course, the Oak Park Public Safety Department was never shut down during the shelter-in-place order because we’re essential workers. Oak Park is unique in that each officer is highly trained in policing, firefighting, and emergency medical services. In fact, Oak Park was the first community in the State of Michigan to combine all three services into one department in the early 1950s.
Our first priority, before, during and after this pandemic, is to maintain the safety of our residents and staff. We immediately secured personal protective equipment such as N95 masks, rubber gloves and eyewear because we know a healthy officer is a responsive officer. During that time, we experienced a higher volume of calls for medical emergencies, so we relied heavily on our dispatch unit to conduct thorough phone interviews. And we were prepared to provide residents with PPE and on-site medical screenings for the virus, as needed.
You participated in the anti-racism protests held in Oak Park following the death of George Floyd. Why was it important for you to be there?
Every officer in the Oak Park Public Safety Department agrees that Mr. Floyd’s death was a senseless murder that placed additional strains on relationships between many communities and their law enforcement agencies across the country. But in Oak Park, it made our bonds stronger. I was honored to be asked to speak at our local rallies because I felt enraged as well. At that time, it was critical to assure the community that we stand with them and that nothing like that would happen in Oak Park.
The rallies were peaceful, and it was clear that they were not anti-police but protests. We distributed free refreshments and face masks from the Oak Park Public Safety Ice Cream Truck. Officers kneeled with residents in a moment of silence for the loss of Mr. Floyd.
I’ve since heard from numerous residents who want to assure our Public Safety Officers that the support is mutual. This is a great example of what results from community policing. Our residents know and trust us. As you can see, that can make all the difference in a crisis situation.
Have there been any recent changes in the Public Safety Department?
I’m pleased to welcome Public Safety Officer Evan Beauchamp to the Department. He was sworn into service with us this summer. And Officer Donald Hoffman, who’s served the Department for seven-and-a-half years, was recently recruited to serve concurrently on Oakland County’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team. I’m extremely proud of both officers and look forward to their contributions to law enforcement and supporting the Oak Park community.