Flossmoor and area residents said they want more transparency from police and village officials, and a commitment from the village to pursue policies that can help prevent police shootings, like the one that led to the death of Madeline Miller in July.
Those were among the prominent messages that emerged from a village-sponsored community forum on Saturday, Oct. 29, at Parker Junior High School in Flossmoor.
Several dozen people gathered for the event that was designed to explore how to improve community relations and promote healing following Miller’s death.
The event generated numerous questions and suggestions — and some heat.
Protesters from the Justice for Madeline Miller coalition preceded the event with a rally in front of the school. Later, they occasionally disrupted the event with objections to its format and calls for justice and accountability.
In one case, a disagreement among participants resulted in a brief shoving match that was broken up by other participants and police.
In her opening remarks, Flossmoor Mayor Michelle Nelson said the discussion was intended to strengthen the village and its sense of community.
“I know we are going to hear a lot of different opinions and feedback, but one of the things I want people to keep at the top of their minds is that we are all here because we believe in more vibrant and safe communities, and one way to be a more safe community is by having great relationships between our police departments and the people they are there to serve and protect,” Nelson said.
“This forum is for you, for you to be heard, to tell us what’s on the top of your mind, what’s on your heart and how we can move past this together to become even stronger as a community.”
Nelson also said that conversations about larger issues raised by Miller’s death could not be completed in one meeting, and the community forum was the beginning of a process that would continue.
The forum was facilitated by attorney Carla Madeleine Kupa and Hazel Crest Police Chief Mitchell Davis. The format included introductions by Nelson, Police Chief Tod Kamleiter, Deputy Police Chief Keith Taylor, Kupa and Davis, followed by two sets of breakout sessions. After each breakout session, facilitators summarized their individual discussions to the entire group.
Protesters asked why there would be no general discussion, with one man shouting that the breakout sessions amounted to a “divide and conquer” strategy.
The discussion generated a range of questions about police and village policies; about options for improving police training and accountability; changing police residency requirement and clothing; requests for improved communication between residents and village officials; and interest in pursuing new means of responding to people experiencing mental health crises.
Based on facilitators’ reports, there was general consensus around those issues.
“One thing I found out is that no matter how we express ourselves, everybody was saying the same thing for the most part,” Davis said at the end of the meeting. “Almost every room came up here with the same things but we had different people in each room. We have more in common than we do otherwise.”
Facilitators noted that participants expressed wanting greater transparency from the village when an incident occurs, as well as more opportunities for regular communication with police and village officials.
One idea involved regularly hosting similar forums facilitated by trustees or other village officials and covering a range of issues that affect residents, in addition to policing matters.
Flossmoor trustees attended the forum on Saturday but did not participate in breakout sessions. Nelson explained to a protester that there was concern people might not feel comfortable discussing issues freely with trustees present.
Davis said members of his group suggested that village officials clarify the their own protocols for communicating with the public during an emergency situation, so residents know what to expect and how to get answers to their questions.
“People weren’t clear on what could be said by village officials,” he said. “It seemed that village officials weren’t aware of what they could or could not say when asked questions by the public.”
Mental health response
All the groups urged the village to actively pursue the implementation of a mental health response program.
A number of program options are available, including Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), which was mentioned during the discussion. There’s a new state law, Community Emergency Services and Supports Act (CESSA), signed in August 2021. There’s a new mental health hotline, 988, that was launched in July.
Residents want the village to consider the range of options and find ways to incorporate or adapt them to local needs, according to the facilitators.
Nelson said the village has already started that process. Village Manager Bridget Wachtel is on the board of ECOM, the local emergency dispatch center, and has begun conversations about having multiple south suburban communities collaborate on implementing mental health response services.
Another specific suggestion was to have a registry of homes where a family member has mental health issues, so if police are asked to respond to the residence, they will be able to respond appropriately.
Nelson said that service already exists, and any Flossmoor family can contact the police department to discuss their situation.
Police practices, training
Community members said they want to know more about how thoroughly police officers are trained in de-escalation practices.
One suggestion was to emphasize flexibility in enforcement. “Enforcement doesn’t have to mean taking someone into custody,” a facilitator reported. “Enforcement can and should be providing resources when necessary to help people and to keep things from recurring.”
Another participant suggested the police consider a policy to use nonlethal force when responding to mental health calls.
Another suggestion was a change in attire, removing the gear, vests and ammunition officers typically wear.
The suggestion that the village consider a residency requirement for police officers is one village officials addressed previously, noting that it would be impractical because the employment pool of potential officers is too small.
One solution suggested at the forum was to utilize residents as part of police training “so police officers understand what certain communities’ lived experiences are like before they hit the streets.”
One facilitator reported that in her group, “someone mentioned that the village doesn’t really acknowledge the racial tension that’s in the community. It’s there, and then when something happens, it tends to boil over.”
She said the village should not wait for incidents to trigger tensions but should address it regularly.
Another group recommended seeking more diversity in the police department and the village government as a whole, along with diversity, equity and inclusion training for village staff.
“Somebody also mentioned they had engaged in Diversity Dinners and healing racism sessions that seemed to be very effective,” Kupe said of her group.
“Someone in the room actually moved here because of those sessions. There was a feeling that bringing those back would be helpful not only to build community but to talk about systemic racism and how it is experienced in the community and what can be done to address that.”
Several comments suggested using existing resources to find solutions, including learning from other communities that are dealing with the same issues, and getting more residents involved in exploring and implementing solutions.
One resident noted after the session that some of the solutions suggested already exist, and that residents have opportunities to get more involved, from attending board meetings to joining village committees.
Despite Nelson’s assurance that the forum was the beginning of an ongoing process, some people expressed fear that the village might talk more than act.
“There’s a hunger for next action steps,” a facilitator reported. “The community is seeking some leadership and commitment to taking action.”
Don Gross, a leader of the Justice for Madeline Miller coalition, shared that concern after the meeting. He said he believes there’s a pattern of Flossmoor officials evading issues.
“You see the facilitator saying the people don’t want this swept under the rug,” Gross said. “They want action taken.”
Although he’s skeptical the village will be more transparent, Gross noted two positive aspects of the forum.
One was the call for Homewood, Flossmoor and surrounding villages to work together. Gross said police departments in the South Suburbs collaborate all the time, so solutions should be designed to cross municipal lines.
He also noted that many of the suggestions from the breakout session reports aligned with things the coalition has been asking for since July.
Nelson shared her takeaways at the end of the forum.
“I heard a lot about education, training, improved communication and collaboration,” she said. “Those are all things that myself and the board and village staff believe in 100%. We will work to do better on all those areas.”
She said village officials continue to meet with Miller’s family.
“They are also interested in being part of this healing process,” Nelson said.
Disclosure: The writer’s son participated in the Justice for Madeline Miller protest.