Since the fatal police shooting of Madeline Miller on July 10, Flossmoor Board of Trustee meetings have been tense and confrontational. Protesters, using the social media hashtag #justiceformadelinemiller, have appeared to make demands for police accountability and changes in village policies, chanting to get attention and disrupt board business. Family members have spoken out about their pain and anger at Miller’s death, which they believe was avoidable.
Village officials have expressed sympathy for the family and support for the action taken by officers at the scene of the shooting, who were responding to a report of a domestic disturbance. Bodycam video shows a woman shouting that Miller was trying to kill her. Miller ran toward officers with a knife in hand and did not respond to repeated commands to drop the knife.
The ongoing investigation of the incident by the Illinois State Police Public Integrity Task Force has been cited by village officials as the reason they cannot address family and protester concerns in more detail than they have.
On Aug. 15, Casey Kueltzo of Homewood distributed a press release on behalf of four organizations involved in sponsoring rallies at board meetings: Justice for Nick, Make Noize for Change, Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Good Kids Mad City. The release listed seven demands that protesters had expressed orally at meetings.
Seeking better communication
The most immediate demand was that the board add a discussion of justice for Madeline Miller to the meeting agenda. To date, protesters, residents and family members have spoken during the citizen comment portion of the agenda.
Kueltzo said the purpose of the request is to provide an opportunity to discuss the issues Miller’s death have brought to the fore.
“It really is to open up a discussion. There’s been no real engagement with the board on any of these issues that we’ve brought up,” he said. “It’s clearly something that not only the family wants to discuss, but all the people behind the family want to discuss.”
On that point, village officials are in agreement with protesters, although the Sept. 6 meeting agenda does not include the agenda item protesters have requested. The village is working instead on setting up a special meeting that would focus entirely on the issues raised by Miller’s death.
On Thursday, Sept. 1, the village’s weekly email newsletter noted that village officials are planning a community forum “to help bring healing and understanding to our community” following Miller’s death. “Leading such an important community conversation requires a knowledgeable, skilled and credible facilitator who can help us format and lead a valuable and productive discussion.”
On Friday, Mayor Michelle Nelson said village officials have two solid leads on potential facilitators and hope to be able to schedule the forum soon.
Improving mental crisis response
Protesters suggest the village explore implementing the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program, which was developed three decades ago in Eugene, Oregon. The program involves sending mental health professionals first to situations that involve mental health crises. The program works in partnership with police, but officers are called to the scene when mental health responders need backup.
Protesters believe a program like that could have changed the result of the encounter between Miller and Flossmoor officers, and they hope implementing it locally might prevent future encounters from becoming deadly.
He said police procedures, including shouting commands, might have increased rather than decreased the intensity of the moment and if medical and mental health professional had responded they might have had a better chance to deescalate the situation.
Flossmoor Police Chief Tod Kamleiter said the situation on July 10 was called in as a domestic disturbance rather than a mental health crisis, however, so police officers likely would have been dispatched even if an alternative response program were in place.
Kueltzo acknowledged that it might not be practical for a village the size of Flossmoor, with a population of just over 9,300, to implement the program by itself. Eugene is a city of more than 175,000 people. He suggested communities in the South Suburbs could partner to create a regional program.
That’s another point of common ground with village officials, who said they have been concerned about improving response for mental health crises for some time.
Kamleiter said village officials have been exploring different models and programs since shortly after Nelson was elected mayor in April 2021, including a co-responder program being implemented by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’re always looking for something we can put in our tool bag to help us deal with the calls involving mental illness and crisis,” he said.
Nelson said a coalition might be the most feasible means of implementing mental health crisis response, noting that she and Village Manager Bridget Wachtel have started exploring the topic with other south suburban communities through the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association and the ECOM group. She said very few municipalities in the area have any kind of mental health crisis response.
The Sheriff’s Office co-responder program is available in three communities, including Oak Lawn, Blue Island and Northbrook.
Protesters have asked that Flossmoor ensure officers receive “continuous crisis intervention, mental health and de-escalation training,” but they acknowledge they are not sure exactly what training officers currently receive.
LaShawn Littrice of Flossmoor, another leader of #justiceformadelinemiller, said when protesters asked the question at a village board meeting, they felt officials responded in a rather dismissive way.
“Someone said, ‘Oh, we already do that.’ There was no real explanation behind it,” she said.
In an interview Friday, Sept. 2, Flossmoor Deputy Police Chief Keith Taylor provided an overview of the village’s police crisis training programs.
Taylor said he believes the village exceeds what most other departments do.
Officers attend a 40-hour crisis intervention course offered by Cook County. The course is taken at one time, eight hours per day for five days, but Taylor said the state now mandates annual crisis intervention training.
The training includes mental illness recognition, how to work with substance abuse cases, the effects of psychotropic medications, conditions that mimic mental illness and how to respond to them and how to de-escalate situations involving people in mental health crisis.
“We also get a lot of on-the-job training, several times a week if not more,” he said.
The department also employs scenario-based training that includes methods for less lethal use of force and how to de-escalate volatile situations.
He said officers have been faced with many crisis situations that they were able to bring to a successful conclusion.
Flossmoor has a three-member police and fire commission appointed by the mayor. Kamleiter said its responsibilities include oversight of hiring, firing and disciplinary matters.
“They don’t really have an investigative component, but they have oversight over who we bring on to be a Flossmoor police officer, a very careful process. They are heavily involved in that. We have not had to use them for firing or discipline.”
Protestors want something more. They are advocating for an elected citizen oversight group that would be a more independent body for investigating cases of alleged police misconduct.
Littrice said they seek something better than the Chicago model, which depends on the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) to field complaints from residents. She thinks that organization is too deferential to police.
“What we were noticing is that COPA was almost like a board put together to silence people, to stop them from questioning,” she said.
She said a more independent board of civilians would be more credible to the community.
Flossmoor officials don’t believe the village needs such a mechanism. Village Manager Bridget Wachtel said there has been only one civilian complaint about police in the past 10 years.
Kamleiter said the department has made it easy to file complaints, too. There’s a place on the village website that allows residents to submit an anonymous report.
He said the department closely monitors all cases of use of force “to make sure our policies weren’t violated and someone’s rights weren’t violated.”
To improve monitoring, the department deployed body cameras in May, three years ahead of the state mandate for implementation.
“That was largely because the officers wanted it,” he said.
Protesters also insist that Madeline Miller’s death be investigated by an outside agency.
Kamleiter said the investigating process already in the works involves three different agencies. It starts with the Illinois State Police. He said the ISP task force is the fact-gathering agency. It sent an investigator to the scene of the shooting and conducted interviews.
The task force’s findings will be submitted to the state’s attorney’s office for review, and finally, the state appellate court will review the case before sending a report back to the local police department.
“So it is an outside review, but it’s an outside review by three different entities, not just law enforcement,” Kamleiter said.
Littrice said protesters are looking into the possibility of seeking a federal investigation.
Protesters would like to see the village implement a residency requirement for police officers.
While they do not know where the officers live who were involved in Miller’s death, Kueltzo and Littrice said non-resident officers might have fewer commonalities with local residents and find it more difficult to develop trust and respect with the people they serve.
They said they worry about a racial component, too. Flossmoor is about 65% Black, but if officers live in communities that are majority white, they might be less culturally compatible with the community and more likely to have “top down” attitudes toward local residents.
Village officials were sympathetic to the goal but noted that the current labor situation makes it impractical.
“We’d love for more residents to apply to be on our police department,” Nelson said. “There’s a test coming up in October, too, if anybody wants to apply to be a Flossmoor police officer.”
The problem is that prospective officers are in short supply, and not just in the South Suburbs.
Flossmoor Assistant Village Manager Jonathan Bogue said imposing a residency requirement would reduce an already slim pool of potential officers. He noted that 60% of law enforcement agencies in Illinois are not fully staffed.
“That’s why just about every municipality outside of Chicago has done away with residency,” Kamleiter said. “We need to make sure we remove every obstacle from hiring qualified people. It’s really the quality of the officer, not so much where they lay their head at night, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Protesters have asked the village to release the names of the two officers who responded to the domestic disturbance at Miller’s home, noting that her name was made public soon after the shooting.
Kamleiter said the village won’t release the officers’ names while the incident is under investigation.