Who is Policing the Police?

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“It’s the fox in charge of the henhouse,” noted one Urbana resident at a
recent City Council meeting. He was expressing in the negative the most
elementary principle of justice: you just can’t investigate yourself. The
rule applies to government agencies as well as individuals, or ought to,
especially in a democracy.
Yet from time immemorial one local agency has been exempt in every
community, arguably the one that needs it most. It is the one agency with
the broadest authority to carry weapons, to use force—sometimes deadly force – on
armed or unarmed citizens, to invade homes, to stop traffic, to arrest and imprison individuals
prior to any hearing before judge or jury, to confiscate property, to demand proper
identification, and to interrogate.
The police are charged with enforcing the law and, somewhat ambiguously, with keeping
the peace. They represent the single most ubiquitous arm of the government, the one that
the most people see most and the one with which the most people interact most frequently.
In some circles they are the most trusted part of government, in others the most feared.
All these are reasons that a grassroots coalition of local groups has been working
for the past five years on establishing an independent board of ordinary residents to
oversee the local police. Now the coalition’s work is finally bearing fruit. A Mayor’s
Taskforce on Citizen Police Review, including representatives of the Urbana police
administration and union as well as community groups, studied and discussed the
issue for the better part of the last year. Their proposal for a citizen police review
board is before the City Council, which held hearing sthis summer and should be
voting on the proposal soon.
The timing couldn’t be better. This summer the News-Gazette reported that the City of Urbana
had paid out $100,000 to settle a lawsuit against an Urbana police officer accused of raping a
local woman while on duty. It was part of a larger, undisclosed settlement mostly paid by the
City’s insurance. The officer had admitted having sex while on duty and resigned. The woman’s
accusations fell on deaf ears. No charges were filed despite the precedent of charges filed in
other cases with less evidence, but not against police officers. There had also been more than
one accusation in the past involving the same officer harassing women while on duty.
A recent report from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) also shows that
local police are stopping black drivers well out of proportion to their numbers in the “driving
population”, as well as issuing citations in disproportionate numbers to blacl drivers
for the same or similar offenses for which white drivers are let go. Despite official policy
against “racial profiling” there appears to be a problem, sparking a somewhat heated discussion
at another Urbana City Council meeting in August.
The effect of these revelations seems to have been to all but silence a rather kneejerk
response from critics of oversight of the police, that “we are not New York or
Chicago.” The implication, that a small Mid-Western town with liberal or progressive
leanings is somehow immune to police misconduct, seems to have lost much of its earlier
True, there has been no local Rodney King equivalent, at least not on TV. (There was one
incident in 2000, in which police broke a man’s neck by putting a knee in his back and
pulling back on his head. The victim in that case received $373,000.) But activists in the
area black community say far worse incidents occur without ever seeing the light of day.
Certainly the local police have a history of discouraging observers.
Recently two local activists received a great deal of attention, and rightly so, when Champaign
police charged them with “eavesdropping” for videotaping area traffic stops as part
of a Copwatch program the two initiated. An outraged public caused the charges to be
dropped in their case, but many believe this was the tip of a very large iceberg, one that
includes both Champaign and Urbana.
One evening in 2002 another Urbana resident was alone in his home when he noticed
some police activity outside in the street. He went out with his camcorder and started
recording the police from his porch steps. Urbana police officers then allegedly yelled at
the citizen to stop, at which point he ran back inside his house. The police gave chase,
broke down his door and hauled him away in handcuffs. Later they obtained a warrant,
confiscated the videotape and released the citizen.
In the course of public hearings over the past year and a half, several other cases have
surfaced in which police threatened or arrested citizens for the apparently serious crime
of keeping an eye on the police.
Other residents have told other kinds of stories. Many say they never filed a complaint
either because their lawyer discouraged it or because they felt the internal complaint
process was not objective enough.
Local advocates of police review say that an independent process would restore public
confidence in the system. And one of these $100,000 settlements would pay for a civilian
oversight board for 20 years or more.
The City is currently in negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police, the police
union. Pending these negotiations, the City Council should be taking up the issue of
oversight of the police again soon. This fall look for a vote on it. Community input will be
needed for that vote. That’s what oversight of government authority is all about.
For more information, go to www.prairienet.org/cprb.

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