Citizen Police Review Boards As Summer Ends: East 1, West 0

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When Laurel Prussing ran for Mayor of
Urbana in 2005, she promised to support
an independent board to oversee the
police, as did most City Council candidates.
When the new Mayor and City
Counci ltook office, they first provided
for three additional police officers. And this summer, after
much public input and negotiation, the Council at last
approved the creation of a police review board. Now the
Mayor is calling on residents to help make it work.
The vote was the culmination of a process that began in
2000 following several incidents involving local police,
including the death in Champaign Police custody of Gregory
Brown, whose family eventually received $150,000
from the city and its insurer. Shortly afterwards the Champaign
County Coalition for Citizen Police Review began
actively advocating for a review board composed of private
individuals in Champaign and Urbana.
The 2005 elections in Urbana were a major breakthrough,
followed shortly by the convening of the Mayor’s
Taskforce on Citizen Police Review in September 2005.
The Taskforce held open meetings, announced in
advance and televised on UPTV, over a period of eight
months, during which time community leaders representing
churches, the NAACP, Urban League, ACLU and others,
met with then-acting Police Chief Mike Bily and the
President of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), then—
Sgt. Anthony Cobb, as well as the Mayor and City Attorney,
to weigh the issues involved in setting up a review board.
At the time, a subcommittee of Champaign’s Police Community
Relations Committee was meeting behind closed
doors to discuss similar ideas, but this fact was not public.
These discussions, at least in Urbana, had a contemporaneous
tone, of necessity. The Illinois Department of Transportation
had released statistics in June 2005 showing
racial disparities in local traffic stops in excess of state
averages. In Urbana, according to the report, black drivers
were 47 percent more likely to be stopped than others,
while in Champaign the difference was 71 percent.
In July of the same year an Urbana police officer, Kurt
Hjort, was accused of raping a local woman while on duty.
The City of Urbana eventually paid out $100,000 in the case.
The officer resigned from the force but was never charged.
Last summer the Urbana Taskforce concluded with specific
recommendations for a police review board composed
of fair-minded Urbana residents of good character,
with the power to subpoena witnesses and documentary
evidence, a mediation process for resolving complaints, if
agreed by all parties.The Taskforce also recommended that
no current Urbana police officer could serve (“a conflict of
interest,” agreed the FOP president) but imposed no further
restrictions.The Urbana City Council took public
comment during two sessions, overwhelmingly in favor of
an oversight board. Some residents worried about having
even former police officers on the board. A small handful
rejected the whole idea of oversight.
The City then entered negotiations with the FOP, meetings
which are routinely closed to the public.
Meanwhile in Champaign, the subcommittee’s final
report leaked to the press in September before the larger
Police Community Relations Committee had seen it. The
report called for a “citizen review committee” to oversee
the complaint process. A majority of Champaign City
Council members then voted for a study session on the
question, which was put off until this July.When Urbana
settled its four-year contract with the FOP in December of
for a police review board but placed severe restrictions on
it. The FOP agreed to accept the review board without further
negotiations. The City agreed that ex-felons will be
ineligible to serve on the board, even when they have paid
their debt to society; that no uniformed police officer will
be required to appear before the board; and that the board
will conduct no “independent third-party investigations”,
instead relying on the Police Chief, in the event that further
investigation is needed.
The City of Urbana then took more comment, notably
at a “Committee of the Whole” meeting of the City Council.
A weakened draft of a review board ordinance received
the News-Gazette’s luke warm endorsement, but not that
of the public.
The paper’s editors expressed “pleasant surprise” at
long standing provisions, discussed publicly at length,
such as training for board members. The editors had earlier
“surprised” readers by chastising the Champaign Police
Department for “managing information” (that is, withholding
it) in the case of a West Side Park shootout
between police and a homeless man, and this on the eve of
Champaign’s July study session on police review.
Urbana residents on the other hand spoke passionately
of the need for the omitted subpoena power, the dangers
of the short deadlines for complainants, and the importance
of a strong oversight board. Among the items of concern
were restrictions the City promised the FOP, which
some residents were just learning about. Council member
Danielle Chynoweth even said she could not support it in
this form. There followed a tense recess in the process
while Urbana staff revised the ordinance again.
Meanwhile Champaign held its long-awaited study session,
but not before Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart
attempted to smother the proposal in its crib.
The day before the study session, July 30, Schweighart told
the News-Gazette he had lined up the votes to block any further
discussion of civilian oversight of law enforcement in
Champaign. The same day the News-Gazette in unusually
shrill terms attacked Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing and
Councilmember Danielle Chynoweth for agreeing with the
vast majority of resident opinion that has ever been
expressed in public concerning police review. The editorial
alleged that Prussing was misleading the public and called
Chynoweth “the pied piper.” It denounced a newly revised
version of the Urbana ordinance that now included subpoena
power and more flexible deadlines.The Champaign study
sesion proceeded as planned on July 31, 2007. Tracy Parsons
of the UrbanLeague and other members of the Police Community
Relations Committee spoke eloquently about the
need for civilian oversight. A review board is a “safety valve”
they said. The Urban League takes hundreds of complaints,
as does the NAACP, many of which do not then translate into
formal complaints at the Police Department because complainants
do not trust the police. Members of the community
also spoke up at length, recounting cases of police misconduct,
cases of complaints mishandled, and so on.
It mattered not. When it was the Council’s turn to speak
it became painfully clear how little most of them had been
moved by what they heard. Four at least said they wanted to
explore the issue further. But four was not enough. The
Mayor called for a vote, and was able to break the tie himself,
smugly, almost giddily, “pulling the plug” as the News-
Gazette put it the next day. Not only would there be no
police review board in Champaign, but there would be no
further discussion of it either. It was the third time since
2000 that the Champaign City Council had rejected recommendations
from a committee that the Council itself commissioned
to study civilian oversight of law enforcement.
The following Monday in Urbana, August 6, the City
Council took further public comment, again overwhelmingly
in favor of the strongest possible police review board.
Council member Lynne Barnes, nominally a Democrat,
had supported the weaker version endorsed by the News-
Gazette, but now deserted the majority and opposed the
ordinance.Council member Heather Stevenson, the
Urbana City Council’s lone Republican, cited an unscientific
on-line poll that found a slim majority opposed to
police review boards. Such polls are not generally accepted
as valid indicators of public opinion, however, because
respondents are not chosen at random but “self-selected”
from people who visit the site. There is no way of knowing
whether a respondent is even a local resident.
One supporter, Council member Dennis Roberts, was
absent, but the ordinance passed in the end, 4-2.There
was little fanfare, and the Council proceeded with other
business after a short break. The Mayor of Urbana is now
taking applications for police review board members until
September 30. Applicants must be residents of Urbana,
must pass a criminal background check (no felony pleas or
convictions), and have no affiliation with any law enforcement
agency or be employed by the City in any capacity.
Board members receive no pay for service, and must complete
a training program.
Once the board is officially constituted, its first members
have a tall order. The Mayor will appoint the chair,
but the board itself must then write its own rules for proceeding,
determine when it will meet, publicize itself, and
step into the choppy waters of local police complaints.The
review board must prove itself to be a fair arbiter of complaints,
without prejudice for or against the police. It will
not have direct disciplinary authority. Its power is in the
ability to give a possibly wronged individual fair hearing
and issue an independent assessment of police actions and
policies. It is a largely moral authority, tied to its credibility
in the community and in City Hall. And as such, its
effectiveness depends wholly on its fairness as much as on
its access to all the evidence.
Now for the hard part.

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