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County officials defend Forest Preserves police in wake of man harassing woman over Puerto Rican flag shirt

Friday, July 13, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Gregory Pratt

County officials defend Forest Preserves police in wake of man harassing woman over Puerto Rican flag shirt

Gregory PrattChicago Tribune

In the wake of a man berating a woman for wearing a Puerto Rican flag T-shirt at a forest preserve, Cook County officials repeatedly have reassured people that the serene expanses of woods are a safe place to go.

As part of that effort, they’ve cited the work of Forest Preserves police, saying the response of an officer who appeared to ignore a woman’s request for help shouldn’t reflect poorly on the entire department.

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“The appalling incident of June 14 and the inaction of one former member of the Forest Preserves Police should not diminish the greatness of the preserves, nor dissuade people from enjoying our 70,000 acres of nature and beauty,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement Thursday.

But the incident that erupted into a national story this week via a viral video posted online isn't the first time the Forest Preserve District Police Department has come under scrutiny, and it’s renewed questions about whether the police force is necessary. Some critics say the department is a redundant use of taxpayer funds and question whether its duties should be taken over by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office.

READ MORE: Forest preserve officer who didn't help woman in Puerto Rican flag shirt 'tarnished the whole department with his failure to act,' commissioner says »

During a budget fight last October after the county’s controversial soda pop tax was repealed, Dart said he could absorb the police force’s responsibilities with minimal if any expansion of his ranks, reducing taxpayer costs by $9.5 million.

That sparked a sharp rebuke from the district’s leadership, and the change wasn’t made.

“We need a dedicated force to be out in the forest preserves every day dealing with all issues, big and small, to make sure we can do our jobs and people feel safe and are safe,” Forest Preserves General Superintendent Arnold Randall said at a Thursday news conference responding to the incident. “Having a force that’ll come to you when you need us, maybe, but if there’s some other priority, there’s something else that’s happening outside the forest preserve and we’re a second option does not work for our mission.”

If another department took over responsibilities for their jurisdiction, the forest preserves would be less of a priority compared with more serious crimes, and that would affect services, Randall said. If people don’t feel safe, he said, “people won’t come.”

“When you’re talking about an individual incident here, I would say it’s important not to cast that broad negative shadow across every forest preserve officer who’s out there working every day, dealing with huge crowds, dealing with people who are intoxicated, dealing with all sorts of issues big and small,” Randall said.

Dart spokeswoman Cara Smith this week stopped short of calling to take over the agency’s duties but said it should be “on the table for discussion.” She said the sheriff’s office believes it could take over with minimal added expenses.

“To the extent there are redundancies, they need to be examined and justified,” Smith said.

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, a frequent Preckwinkle critic, said he sees the June incident as further reason to question “whether or not we actually need a forest preserve police department or whether (an incident like) this incident is better handled by the sheriff.

“Quite frankly, I’m sure that a sheriff’s police would’ve been actively engaged right away once the gentleman was hurling insults and got in the lady’s face,” said Boykin of Oak Park. “I’m sure that sheriff’s police, based on his or her training, would’ve been actively engaged in the situation to de-escalate that situation and to make sure a valid permit holder is not harassed in any way.”

READ MORE: Hate crime charges filed against man caught on video confronting woman over Puerto Rico shirt »

Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison of Palos Park, another Preckwinkle critic, said it would be more “efficient” to have the sheriff’s office take over the department’s duties.

“We’re paying big salaries for people to drive around and at the end of the night lock the chains and unlock it in the morning,” Morrison said. “Is that the best use of funds? I don’t know.”

Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan said the office doesn’t see “any savings” available by merging the forest police with the sheriff’s office.

“The Forest Preserve police perform the unique functions of serving as park rangers and are knowledgeable about the preserves themselves in addition to their public safety duties,” Shuftan said. “The action or inaction of one officer … should not taint an entire force, and any attempt at doing so is patently unfair and wrongheaded.”

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @royalpratt



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