For the past eleven Urbana City Council meetings, residents have lined up to deliver what has amounted to more than a dozen hours of criticism and a seemingly endless stream of misconduct allegations against the Urbana Police Department. Initially sparked by the violent arrest of Urbana resident Aleyah Lewis, which was captured on video by vigilant civilians this April, local calls for action have now been fortified and fueled by the nationwide movement for police accountability in the wake of the George Floyd murder.
Focusing on the Lewis arrest, a common theme recited by many locals is: where does our Civilian Police Review Board stand in this picture? Unfortunately, unless someone who was physically present manages to file a complaint, Urbana Police Chief Bryant Seraphin inevitably claims that the civilian board has no power to review the incident.
The Urbana Civilian Police Review Board (CPRB) was created in 2007, thanks to local grassroots efforts. Unfortunately, the ordinance ultimately passed by the city council was not exactly what the founders had in mind. Many of the investigative and disciplinary powers of the board were stripped away from the initial proposal, leaving the CPRB in a state that some residents have called a “rubber stamp” for the police department.
The requirement to personally witness an incident is not the only restriction that limits the usefulness of the CPRB. Civilian complaints are frequently denied by police department and city staff for any number of creative reasons. Strictly enforced time restrictions, requirements to have forms notarized, jurisdictional obstacles invented by City Legal, and a seemingly bottomless bag of administrative trickery leave the public with little means for access.
According to Deputy Chief Richard Surles, if a complainant so much as utters any statement about wishing to sue the police, even an empty threat, they have forfeited their opportunity for redress through the CPRB complaint process.
More recently, the level of public access to the CPRB has gotten substantially worse. Since Mayor Diane Marlin locked down the City Building during the COVID-19 pandemic, residents can no longer access the police services window to submit complaint forms and have them notarized. A complainant must have internet access, a printer, access to a licensed notary, and a scanner to be able to submit a complaint by email. This obstacle course may be somewhat manageable for less-equipped residents, if only the public library were not also closed. [Editors’ note: Urbana Free Library has since reopened.]
Mayor Marlin has refused to extend the 45-day complaint submission deadline, even during the pandemic. At the same time, Chief Seraphin and his staff have been frequently violating the time constraints placed upon the police department to respond to complaints. According to the city code, the police department is supposed to send a simple letter of receipt by certified mail within 14 days of a complaint filing, but Chief Seraphin has recently been waiting more than a month before issuing receipt letters. For complainants, the double standard is one more painful reminder of the hopeless power dynamic between civilians and the police.
Were it not for the notary requirement, which appears to be a pure invention by the Urbana Police Department (the city code makes no mention of a notary requirement), public access to the complaint process would be greatly increased.
As drawn out by residents at the past three CPRB meetings, and recent city council meetings, the problems with the CPRB are not limited to its restrictive ordinance. The CPRB has been in a state of quiet dissolution for the past several years. The board has not been receiving or reviewing civilian complaints for years, and there is no indication that it has been keeping a complaint registry, as outlined in its ordinance. The CPRB went nearly a year without meeting betweem 2018 and 2019, and quarterly and annual reports have not been issued by the board since 2014.
By law, the Urbana Police Department is required to send copies of police complaints to the CPRB within seven days of receipt. In practice, it appears that board members haven’t been allowed to see any complaints for over four years. The CPRB has been flying blind. When this issue was raised by board members during their October, 2019 meeting, Human Resources Director Todd Rent and Community Relations Specialist Preston James (a retired Urbana police officer), fumbled for excuses.
In September, 2019, Chair Grace Mitchell pushed the CPRB to stop reviewing most Taser usage incidents, and the board members voted in agreement. The requirement to review all Taser incidents is outlined in the city code, and the CPRB has no authority to modify the code. This decision is simply puzzling, and contrary to the establishment and purpose of the CPRB.
The situation is bleak, and residents who attend CPRB meetings argue that the public simply has no faith in the complaint process. Complainants who have endured the CPRB process have stated that the complaint process itself was more upsetting than the initial police misconduct that triggered it.
When municipal government fails, local grassroots efforts can often move quickly to pick up the slack. Perhaps with increased awareness of the potential for police misconduct, civilian watchdogs along with local media can provide the oversight needed.
Unfortunately, City of Urbana staff are already one step ahead in actively shutting out residents. On June 8, Mayor Marlin appointed Assistant City Attorney Curt Borman as Urbana’s new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Officer. Access to public records, especially police records, was no walk in the park before, but now it is a minefield. Borman has weaponized the city FOIA process by assessing huge fees on requests for police-related documents.
Whereas the City of Urbana almost never charged any fees before, requests asking for police video are now being met with fees in the hundreds of dollars. A recent request for documents and video related to a fairly simple Urbana Police incident was met with $730.63 in fees. The city also wanted $27.97 for a copy of the Urbana Police Department polices. It is even threatening to charge these fees without the consent of the requester, which means a simple email to the City of Urbana asking for records could land you in debt.
On the CPRB side, there may be a slight glimmer of hope on the horizon. Recently, and without any announcement or explanation from the Mayor, the position of CPRB Chair has been reassigned to Mikhail Lyubansky. Lyubansky is a U of I professor in the Department of Psychology, specializing in restorative justice and racial/ethnic group relations.
Meanwhile, the persistence of the public seems to have finally caught the attention of some city council members. After six consecutive attempts by members of the public to draw the attention of the city council to the quandary that is the CPRB, Alderman Bill Brown finally nibbled and called for a review of the CPRB reporting requirements. The review, which took place on June 1, revealed exactly what everyone expected: the CPRB had not been following its ordinance for at least six years—but at least the council has joined the conversation.
Alderwoman Maryalice Wu has declared that she wants to see at least one discussion item related to police policies at every city council meeting going forward. Alderman Jared Miller plans to hold a series of special city council meetings to focus specifically on restructuring the police department.
It seems clear that Urbana residents have no intention of setting aside their grievances with the Urbana Police Department anytime soon. A full review of the CPRB is imminent, and all signs indicate that the UPD’s policies, as well as its collective bargaining agreement, are next in line.