February 3, 2014 (Updated February 4, 2014) || Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp || Better Government Association
The Maywood Park District Police Department was shut down in 1997 — and not a moment too soon.
Poorly trained and supervised, park district officers were accused of stealing from suspects and brutalizing residents.
Getting on the force reportedly cost $3,000 for a badge.
The park district had three parks and a tot lot, yet its “volunteer” police force ballooned to 100 or more cops, with so many people allowed to carry guns and stars, the agency didn’t have an accurate head count.
Several officers ultimately were sentenced to prison for shaking down a suspected drug dealer who really was an undercover FBI agent. Another park officer – who was a member of the soul group the Chi-Lites – was convicted in a badge-selling scheme in Dixmoor.
Despite that sordid past and concerns from the community, the park district is trying to reestablish a large-scale police force, with plans to bring on dozens of unpaid, part-time cops with the power to enforce laws not just in parks — but virtually everywhere in town, the Better Government Association has learned.
The move comes as many other, smaller governments are looking to consolidate their public-safety services with other agencies — not expand them.
The man appointed as director of public safety to oversee this push is John Wicks, who was on the park district force when it was disbanded.
He is not currently a certified police officer, state records show.
In an interview, Wicks was vague about how large the park district force might become.
But parks officials have told village leaders the “ultimate goal” is to have 50 or 60 officers, according to Maywood Village Manager Bill Barlow, adding, “It’s pretty transparent what they want the authority for — to get the money from writing tickets.”
Others, however, worry that the force will provide patronage jobs for the dominant political figure in town, Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough. Wicks is part of Yarbrough’s political organization and has donated money to her campaign. The park board, since last year’s election, is aligned with Yarbrough, and her niece is among the commissioners.
Yarbrough, though, says she doesn’t support the park police push.
“Been there, done that, it didn’t work then, and it wasn’t a good thing then, so I don’t know why it’d be a good thing now,” she said. “It’s not a good use of resources.” She said she’d rather see additional recreation programs and leave most of the patrolling in town to village police.
The backdrop to all this: Maywood’s village government plans to transfer control of at least half a dozen parks to the park district.
Parks officials say with all that new open space coming their way — and all the crimes in those parks — they need a bigger, professionalized police force.
The park district already has the authority to police its parks. But it’s asking the village board to allow a larger, reconstituted park district police department to patrol anywhere within 2.5 miles of a park — meaning almost the entire western suburb, population 24,000.
Village officials are balking, for now, concerned about the new force bumping up against village police, and draining ticket revenue. The financially struggling municipality expects to collect about $150,000 in traffic and parking violations this year, Barlow said.
“We cannot afford to share the dollars, the revenue, with the park district because we’re struggling ourselves,” said Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins.
Others are concerned less about the financial implications, and more about the police force going rogue, as happened in the 1990s, and being filled with patronage appointments.
“The only thing I would assume is they’re trying to build another political patronage force,” said Al McKinnor, who was brought in as park district executive director in the late 1990s and disbanded the police force back then. He left last year as a new regime took over.
Current park board President Terrance Jones said patronage is “absolutely not” the intent. “An increase in public safety is the No. 1 reason why we’re looking at this,” he said.
One former Maywood park police force member is Marshall Thompson, a member of the Chi-Lites, who got tied up in a badge-selling scheme with the Dixmoor Park District Police Department and went to prison.
When told of the efforts to rejuvenate the force, Thompson said: “We created a stank of course, but we had some good guys.” Resurrecting the force all depends on “who is in charge so they don’t get caught up like last time.”
If they expunged his criminal record, Thompson said he’d “be glad to be part” of the department again.
This article was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp. VFP