Playground Slide

Maywood Park District’s police department was disbanded in the 1990s amid a massive corruption scandal. Officials in the western suburb are now pushing to resurrect the force – in what critics say is a huge step backwards.

The Maywood Park District Police Department was shut down in 1997, not a moment too soon.

Poorly trained and supervised, park district officers were accused of stealing from suspects, brutalizing residents and buying their way onto the force – $3,000 was reportedly the going price 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 headcount.

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.

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John E. Wicks Sr., Director of Public Safety for the Maywood Park District Police Department

Despite the sordid past, concerns from the community and a trend toward public-safety consolidation, 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 man appointed as director of public safety to oversee this push: John Wicks, who was on the park district force when it was disbanded, and who 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.

Not A Political Dumping GroundClick to read more...

The new public safety director at the Maywood Park District is John Wicks, who was a part-time officer with the Maywood Park District police in the 1990s.

He is not currently certified to work as a police officer, according to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. The park district recently petitioned the state agency, which oversees law enforcement credentialing in Illinois, for a waiver that would allow him to serve again as a cop, records show.

However, that application was denied, meaning Wicks currently has no "powers of arrest, no right to carry a weapon" as a police officer, according to Larry Smith of the training and standards board.

Wicks said he’s acting as an administrator, not as a cop. As such, he does not have to be a police officer.


Other Park Districts In Illinois With Police Forces

Canton Park District

Crystal Lake Park District

Decatur Park District

Fon du Lac Park District (East Peoria)

Fox Valley Park District (Aurora area)

Hawthorne Park District (Cicero)

Lockport Township Park District

Memorial Park District (Bellwood, Stone Park)

Naperville Park District

Pekin Park District

Peoria Park District

Quincy Park District

Rockford Park District

Round Lake Area Park District

Springfield Park District

Zion Park District


Wicks, who is active in Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough’s political organization, insisted politics had nothing to do with his hiring, nor will it be a factor in which officers are allowed to volunteer for a resurrected park police force.

"It’s not a political dumping ground where some politician says, ‘Hey, give my guy a job,’" said Wicks, who will be paid about $15,000 a year and oversee a part-time chief making about the same. "These guys aren’t obligated to any politician. . . . Volunteer officers, people serious about the children and the parks and want to volunteer their time."

Why would anyone want to be an unpaid officer?

Wicks mentioned altruistic motives, but ex-park district Executive Director Al McKinnor said some people like the ability to carry a gun, "flash the badge, get out of trouble, get out of a ticket," and also more easily find private security work.

"You really just don’t see the creation of a new police force," said Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes, a vice president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. And "it’s kind of rare" to find a stand-alone park district police force any more.

Of the 300-plus park districts in Illinois, the Illinois Association of Park Districts knows of 16 park district police forces. The group’s president and CEO, Peter Murphy, said most park systems opt to have an arrangement with municipal police departments to patrol.


VoM Manager BillBarlow

Maywood Village Manager Bill Barlow

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 become a new source of patronage 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.

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 drug dealing, vagrancy and other crimes in those parks – they need a bigger, professionalized police force. (After the park district police department was disbanded, several part-timers were brought on to work, in effect, as security guards paid by the hour. The park district now wants to augment them with the unpaid officers.)

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 from their coffers, among other things. 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. "I think if they want to patrol the parks, inside their area, I don’t have no problem with that."

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Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins

Others are concerned less about the financial implications, and more about the police force going rogue, as occurred 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.

Yarbrough told the BGA she isn’t involved in the park police push, and doesn’t support it.

"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.

Making Memorial Park District Police A MemoryClick to read more...

The Memorial Park District in the western suburbs has been debating whether to dismantle its police force, but the park board is divided.

By Patrick Rehkamp and Robert Herguth/BGA

As the Maywood Park District tries to resurrect its police force, the nearby Memorial Park District is talking about the opposite: Putting its police department to pasture.

On Jan. 21, the Memorial Park District board voted down a measure to dismantle its force, but with a close 3-2 vote.

The issue isn't going away, with it possibly resurfacing on an upcoming park board agenda, officials said.

"I would love for this police department to be gone," said Memorial Park District Executive Director Mari Herrell.

Proponents of eliminating the police department point, in part, to its cost – roughly $250,000 a year, covering 20 or so sworn, part-time officers.

Parks officials also said they get complaints about park district cops writing unnecessary tickets and stopping people outside the park district grounds where municipal police patrol.

The park district covers all or part of Bellwood, Berkeley, Hillside, Melrose Park, Northlake and Stone Park.

The three park commissioners who voted to keep the police force either refused comment or couldn't be reached.

Among those voting in favor of disbanding the force, which has been around for decades, was Ralph Sartore. He's been on the park board since 1969, and said most of the officers do their job well but it's time to consolidate.

He also expressed astonishment that the Maywood Park District is trying to bring back its police department after its well-publicized scandals.

"Why in the hell they want to start another park district police is beyond my imagination," Sartore said. "I mean, an idiot would say 'Are you nuts?'"

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Patrick Rehkamp and Robert Herguth. They can be reached at (312) 386-9201 or prehkamp@bettergov.org. Rehkamp's Twitter handle is @patrickrehkamp.


Less critical about the possibility of resurrecting the park police is Marshall Thompson. A member of the Chi-Lites, he was on Maywood’s park police force years ago and got tied up in a badge-selling scheme with the Dixmoor Park District Police Department and went to prison.

Now living in the south suburbs, the BGA told him of the efforts in Maywood – which experts say defy trends toward consolidation. Statewide, there are at least 16 park district police departments, according the Illinois Association of Park Districts.

"We created a stank of course, but we had some good guys," Thompson said. 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.

The Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp wrote and reported this story. They can be reached at (312) 821-9030 or rherguth@bettergov.org.