The Chief Who Listens
Our summer sermon series, “Privilege and Promise: This is America” concluded last Sunday with a powerful sermon from Pastor Danita and an insightful special guest on the Zoom chat following worship. By the end of that Zoom call, I felt encouraged and hopeful about the leader of the Woodridge Police Department, the culture that is in place in the WPD, and the direction the WPD is headed. Why? I base that hope in what Woodridge Police Chief Brian Cunningham told us. Here’s what he said:
Please note: The following is not a transcript. The following cannot be considered direct quotes. Rather, what I share here are the notes I took during the Zoom meeting. As such, it is possible I misheard the Chief or wrote something down wrong. Any errors here are mine.
Chief Cunningham said he wasn’t able to hear all of Pastor Danita’s sermon, “God’s Law and Order," due to the technical difficulties we had that morning. (If that was the case for you too, please go watch the sermon video now. You’ll be glad you did.) But he said he did not become police in order to be an authority and create law and order. Chief Cunningham shared his desire to be police flowed from his Christian faith and a desire to help people in need. He looks to the example of Robert Peel for the best way to be police: "The police are the public and the public are the police.” The Chief’s goal for Woodridge is not having to react to crime. Again echoing Robert Peel’s idea that the effectiveness of police is measured in lack of crime, not the number of arrests.
One example the Chief offered for what that approach looks like in our neighborhood is JANO (Janes Avenue Neighborhood Outreach) mentoring children and youth.
Further, the Chief said all Woodridge police are crisis trained so they are better equipped to handle situations involving people experiencing mental illness, domestic disputes, and similar. He also shared his experience earlier in his career (in the Naperville Police) partnering with a social worker who provided necessary care after families experienced trauma related to a crime. He said Woodridge is looking into a similar program.
When asked about how he keeps White* supremacy out of the department, he said:
While a common standard is for officers to receive implicit bias and social justice training every three years, Chief Cunningham has upped that to annual training for each Woodridge officer. He said that’s vital to the culture they have created and are creating in the department. They have daily conversations on policy, social justice, and how to handle different situations. The Chief said every day he talks with each person on duty that day so he knows all their officers.
What are other ways the Woodridge Police Department is doing to ensure we never have a George Floyd or Jacob Blake situation here?
The Chief said he and the Police Union president have been pushing since 2018 for body cameras for all their officers and the Village has now approved them. They hope to have the cameras by the end of 2020.
Additionally, Chief Cunningham encourages their officers to respond with “hands on” rather than looking to shoot suspects. He said that approach has been successful even with violent offenders. The Chief shared that in 30+ years he has never had to shoot anyone.
Another facet of keeping officers and the community safe the Chief shared is their commitment to attending to the mental health and wellbeing of their officers. He admitted that even talking about mental health can be difficult for police, especially older officers who were once taught not to show emotion. But that is part of the police culture that they are working on changing. Woodridge regularly has mental health caregivers as speakers at roll call.
The department is continually seeking to diversify its ranks. While the financial effect of COVID has made expanding the department difficult for now, the Chief wants more and more diverse applicants for the department.
If you attended the Public Roll Call we hosted here at WUMC about a year ago, you may remember that Chief Cunningham told us that Woodridge is a model for DuPage County and others in pursuing the removal of firearms from those who have had their FOID (Firearm Owners Identification) card revoked.
What about the relationship between the police department and Woodridge schools?
Chief Cunningham told us the schools do not have a contract with the police department and the school do not pay the police for their programs. But the Chief is committed to maintaining a relationship with the community through a program in schools. The former such program, D.A.R.E., has ended and now they engage through GRIT (it isn’t an acronym).
Reading this over, I think I’ve shared the words that were said, but I’m not certain I’ve captured the spirit that was clearly present. Not enough, perhaps, to justify that lofty lede. So allow me to add that. My impression of Chief Cunningham is that he is a good man determined to head a police department that cares for its citizens and its officers. He listens, doesn’t shy away from difficult questions, and is open with his responses. I believe Chief Cunningham is committed to leading a department that adds to the social justice of our community.
*One last time for this series, I continue to include this note because this change continues to be jarring for me too. Why is White capitalized? The AP style has recently changed to capitalize Black but not White. I’ve read arguments for this distinction and arguments against it. I will capitalize both because I find most compelling the reasoning that we who are White have for too long hidden behind a generic cultural sense that positions us as the default. I am convinced that has contributed to us being blinded by our White privilege and unable or unwilling to see the reality of racism in our systems and in ourselves.