Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- As retiring Chief Christopher Mannino prepares to leave office soon, eNews Park Forest sat down with him in his office for a discussion about his career, the changes he has observed over the years, and thoughts about what he will remember most.
The Chief’s last day in the office is Friday, March 25, when he retires after serving almost 25 years in the Park Forest Police Department as an officer, detective, corporal, commander, and deputy chief, before becoming the department’s 12th chief in September 2017, taking over from then chief, Peter Green.
While Mannino is retiring from the department, his professional career is ongoing. He will become a consultant and instructor on public communication, advising law enforcement agencies, local governments, as well as the private sector. He notes that he will be taking the public communication skills he has learned in Park Forest and applying them to private industry. He added that the arrival of his fifth child – a boy – this summer will also keep him occupied.
Retiring Chief Mannino recalls childhood and early days on the force
Mannino has strong ties to Park Forest and the south suburbs. His father, Vito Mannino, served for many years with the Richton Park Police Department and retired as their chief in 2010. His mother was an elementary school teacher in Oak Forest, Matteson, and other communities. Mannino and his siblings each attended different Rich Township High Schools due to where they lived at the time: he attended Rich South, his sister attended Rich East, and his brother Rich Central.
Robert Maeyama was the Park Forest Police Chief when Mannino joined the force in 1997. Early guidance from the Chief made a deep impression. Mannino recalls responding to the home of an elderly woman who wanted him to put away her storm windows. Unsure of what to do, a call to Chief Maeyama made his role clear, “This is Park Forest. It’s what we do.” The storm windows were safely stored away.
Maeyama was the “epitome of what I wanted to achieve. He commanded respect, had a deep passion for Park Forest, and was always relatable even as a brand-new officer.”
While today’s officers may not be in habit of handling storm windows, Mannino pointed with pride to examples of his officers helping residents dig out their cars after a snowstorm, and even cooking a meal for a distressed woman while waiting for a caretaker to arrive. “It’s the Park Forest way.”
Changes he has observed through the years
When asked how the job of being a police officer has changed through the years, the Chief said it has changed “for the better in some ways, not for the better in others.” He believes that the role of the police officer today is much more professional than in the past, with an emphasis on equitable policing and compassion.
On the other hand, he noted that there is increased pressure and stress on law enforcement. He stated that “while scrutiny and accountability are needed in law enforcement, some of the criticism has been unjust or too broadly painted.”
Commenting on how the village has changed during that same time, he stated that the changes have not been dramatic. “At its core, it’s the same village. I still see the same volunteerism. The level of community engagement blows me away.”
While acknowledging that the village still has work to do, he pointed with pride to efforts the village has made to be more inclusive.
“The fact that Park Forest intentionally tried to overcome racism and become more open, more welcoming, and more integrated is to our benefit compared to some of the surrounding communities. It is refreshing that you can have so many different races, religions, and cultures in one area. It betters us all.”
He noted that at the time he joined the force, it was the tail end of the outdoor mall and about all that remained in the downtown shopping area was the Sears Automotive Center and the shell of what had been Marshall Field’s.
Now, 25 years later, he is witnessing vibrant, commercial activity downtown. He is most pleased with what he refers to as the “Black Entrepreneurial Renaissance” with the first licensed Illinois Black owned and operated winery Vintrendi Wines, the culinary incubator Poppin Plates, the Serenity’s Place bakery, and other Black owned business that are thriving.
“I will always have nostalgia for the ‘old Park Forest,’ but I love what it is becoming, and I have great optimism for the future.”
Career Highlights along with Painful Memories
When asked about highlights of his career, Mannino did not point to specific events, but referenced “instances where I know I have helped people.”
“I have had the privilege of seeing some of the greatest police work that has existed. There are cops that walk these halls that I would put up against cops anywhere. Overall, it has been an always different, interesting, and fulfilling career.”
Of course, with the good memories, the Chief also takes away some tough times from his career.
“I certainly carry some ghosts with me. As I drive around the community, I recognize homes from specific incidents during my career. There is a little bit of pain along with those memories and, of course, Tim Jones is at the top of that list.”
Mannino was a Deputy Chief in March of 2016 when Officer Tim Jones was shot and severely injured while attempting to apprehend a suspect. Mannino was tasked with dealing with the press inquiries that morning and was able to keep it together until “I got back in my office and I lost it.”
The Last Two Years
The past two years have been especially challenging for Mannino and the force. Not only was the country dealing with a raging COVID-19 pandemic, but law enforcement was under intense scrutiny as a result of the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis and the resultant Black Lives Matter protests across the county.
As far as the pandemic is concerned, Mannino believes that the village managed it very well, trying to balance the need to follow executive orders required by law with having compassion for individuals. “Everyone just trying to do their best is what it comes down to, but clearly it caused stress that continues to impact people.”
The civil unrest that ignited during this period posed a vastly different problem. Mannino is proud of how the department acted and believes that the “strong relationships the department had in the community and with the communities of color” helped the situation. He noted that the police department helped facilitate several peaceful protests in the area. Mannino personally participated in the George Floyd March for Justice in Chicago Heights in June 2020.
He does note, however, that the anti-police sentiment seems stronger than at any point in his career, and that wears on officers. “We continue to see strong community support, but we do not police in a bubble. You are always aware of the national sentiment, and it definitely is a stressor on officers.”
Mannino noted that the Park Forest Police Department is currently the most diverse it has ever been in its 70-year history, but that there is always room for improvement.
The health and safety of his officers is always a concern for the Chief. In particular, he is concerned about their mental health. “In law enforcement, you are exposed to a lot of traumas which can impact your ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle due to poor sleep cycles and eating habits.” He believes a new law taking effect this July, which requires annual mental health screenings for officers, will help.
Nationally, the country has experienced an increased level of crime and higher traffic injuries over the past couple of years. When questioned, Mannino pointed to a few underlying reasons: the pandemic, the national rhetoric against law enforcement, as well as officers (nationally) on the street possibly taking a less aggressive stance on proactive policing than previously.
Mannino was clear that he is not advocating for law enforcement practices of the past that may have made some lose trust in the community, but rather for “proactive policing in a way that is fair, impartial, and upholds the constitution. We must be sure we are doing it in the right way, rebuild trust, and find a path forward. We cannot allow chaos. It is not safe. You cannot have social justice in a setting that is not safe. We have to find a way to provide safety while remaining socially just.”
The Use of Social Media
Mannino has been a strong proponent of the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter during his time as Chief. He believes it is crucial in maintaining strong relationships with the community. However, he does note that there is a downside to its use.
Because Park Forest uses social media so often to report incidents, it can give the appearance that Park Forest has more such issues as compared to other communities that do not post as frequently. While this “negative advertising” is a concern, Mannino believes that being transparent about what is taking place overrides that concern.
“I want to know what’s going on where I live. I think everyone should. It’s incumbent on government to make people aware.”
While social media is important, the Chief also noted the benefits of in-person contacts which have a higher quality of interaction. Events such as “Coffee with a Cop” might reach 20-30 people, a social media post might reach 30,000. Nonetheless, he believes activities such as the pop-up neighborhood parties held in the Eastgate section of the village, and Unity Day held as part of Main Street Nights help build strong bonds between the police and the community.
The New Chief
Park Forest Village Manager Tom Mick recently selected Deputy Chief Paul Winfrey to be the new Chief when Mannino retires.
Like Mannino, Winfrey has served the village in multiple positions within the department for 24 years. Mannino believes that Winfrey is an excellent choice and while he does not expect significant changes in the department, he is sure that Winfrey will make his own mark on the department just as he has done.
How He Would Like to be Remembered
When asked what he would like to be remembered for, Mannino pointed to two things. First, his love and passion for Park Forest, and secondly, how much he cared about the men and women of the department who protect it every day.