Oak Park police chief tells students to make good choices
Oak Park Chief of Police Rick C. Tanksley speaks to about 25 people about making good decisions and interacting with police. | Ray Whitehouse~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 22, 2013 6:32AM
OAK PARK — Police Chief Rick Tanksley looks every bit the veteran cop he is — tall and fit, relaxed but commanding.
However, when he met recently with a group of students, he showed a more vulnerable side.
Asked by APPLE, a local parents’ group, to speak on the topic of “Kids making proper choices,” Tanksley shared his past as an example of what to do and not do.
The three students at the Feb. 12 meeting were outnumbered by the half-dozen D200 board members and board candidates, along with several mothers and a few OPRF faculty.
“I was expecting a few more kids,” Tanksley noted as he looked about the room.
The ones who did show up heard him talk about his own bad decision-making many years ago, and of the woman who intervened.
Growing up in a rowhouse at 13th Street and Racine Avenue on Chicago’s near west side, Tanksley was headed for a life of trouble. In fourth grade, he recalled, “I started acting like a fool,” he said. “I was bad.”
By the summer before sixth grade, “I was fighting all the time.”
His mom put her foot down. To paraphrase Robert Frost, two roads diverged in his neighborhood, and there his mom stood, hands on her hips, blocking one road while pointing sternly to the other.
Mrs. Tanksley pulled young Rickie and his brother from public school and enrolled him in a private school.
Things changed at home, too.
“My room was subject to unannounced searches,” Tanksley recalled. “That’s what you give up when you act up.”
Around that same time, Tanklsey recalled, he noticed his report card, with grades on one side and “problem behaviors” on the other side. He said prior to going to a private school, he had low grades and lots of problem behaviors.
“I saw report cards from kids who were getting good grades, and they had no checks on the behavior side,” he said. “And I realized the correlation.”
Mom’s message sunk in.
“Sometimes people need a wake-up call. I listened to that wake-up call, because I was afraid of what the consequences would be.”
Instead of multiple arrests and diminished job opportunities, Tanklsey attended Concordia College in River Forest and joined the Oak Park Police Department.
“This dream can be anybody’s dream,” Tanksley said of making it to the top of your profession. “But it starts with making the right decisions.”
A big part of the problem for many kids, Tanksley said, is peer pressure. Young people looking to fit in do things in a crowd they wouldn’t have done on their own.
Tanksley said what troubles him most about dealing with teenagers is their apparent lack of awareness of how their behavior can have serious consequences later on in their life.
“People make decisions everyday. And those can lead you down a certain path,” he said. “When you reach a certain age, it’s very, very difficult to get that record removed.”
Young people also need to know how to interact with law enforcement.
Tanksley said if teenagers want to understand how to avoid problems with police, they need only look at the expectations the police department has for its own officers.
Tanksley said his officers are under orders to “Treat people with respect, follow the law and be professional in everything you do.”
He urged young people to have that same attitude.
“You want to get along with the police? Extend the same courtesy,” he said. He stressed that doesn’t mean giving up rights.
“Don’t hesitate to ask an officer why you were stopped,” he said. “I have a rule for my cops that you will tell (people) why you’re stopping them.”
Interacting appropriately with police is just one of many decision young people must make. Ultimately, Tanksley said, each of those decisions are theirs alone once they step out their front door.
“The moment you leave your house, you’ve got all sorts of influences,” he noted. Think of the future, he told them.
“There’s a power to making the right decision,” he said. “You have that power within your hands.”