Former Champaign Police Chief Robert T. Finney was hired in August, 2020 to teach Community Policing as well as Introduction to Criminal Justice at Parkland College. “Unbelievable” is what one African American community member thought on hearing the news; “Shocking,” noted another. Finney is the former chief (2003–12) of the Champaign Police Department (CPD), who has had a troubled relationship with the African American community. His tenure saw repeated complaints against aggressive, racialized policing in the community, and Finney directed numerous efforts to block citizen review of police actions.
Most notably, Finney was present at the tragic police shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington in 2009. Carrington was entering the home he was staying at when a neighbor reported a suspected robbery. Finney and another officer arrived, and less than 44 seconds later the unarmed youth was fatally shot under circumstances which have never been satisfactorily addressed. The only eyewitness, another youth, disputed the CPD account. The incident is still seen by the community as the most blatant incident in a history of racist policing by the CPD, which Finney, as chief of police, failed to address.
“A Slap in the Face”
One Parkland faculty member was not shocked to hear about Finney’s hiring, given some other problematic, racialized situations at the college, but still felt that Finney’s hiring was a “slap in the face to those who know his history.” Reverend Terrance L. Thomas, pastor of the Bethel AME church in Champaign, placed the Finney hiring in a larger political context.
”The hiring of former CPD chief Finney is part of the continued disrespect of the African American community by those who have used their power to bring us harm. By bringing Finney back to this community, Parkland has shown its disregard and contempt for the African American community; it is a contempt that rivals [that shown in] any southern city during the Civil Rights Movement. More importantly, this is part of the shift to the extreme right we see happening in the CU area. The African American community must find its voice and have the audacity to fight to overturn this hiring.”
Reverend Thomas played a key role in shaping the Champaign-Urbana-based Ubuntu Project, which formed in response to the 2009 Carrington shooting. Over the past two years Ubuntu has held a series of community meetings to promote community engagement in police reform, among other issues.
Alex Horton, graduate student in Social Work at the University of Illinois, has worked with Ubuntu on promoting more humane police hiring practices and opposing automated license plate readers; he also found the Parkland news discouraging. “Former Chief Finney’s hiring at Parkland speaks to the power those who are opposed to police accountability in our community still wield.” Ubuntu is one of the key promoters of a petition to remove Finney from Parkland.
Aaron Ammons, Champaign County Clerk and Recorder, was appalled to hear of Finney’s new role at Parkland, and wondered who “would hire a former chief of police who an eyewitness implicated as executing a 15-year-old child to teach Community Policing? Are they completely oblivious of, or just not concerned about, the police murder of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington?”
The Gun Just “Went Off”
In response to the recurring question “what happened to Kiwane?,” the African American community was told by former Chief Finney on WBCP radio that Kiwane was killed because “the gun went off.”
Ammons, commenting not only as a community activist, but as a son, brother, husband, father, and FOID Card holder and gun owner, still feels the insult from this response. “Two officers, presumably the most professionally trained and best equipped to handle any call, entered a backyard with two African American youth and Kiwane Carrington was never seen alive again. The official response from then-Chief Finney, the City of Champaign, and the CPD, was ‘the gun went off.’”
Ammons believes that “if Finney wants this community to trust him teaching community policing, he should start by showing us how he has changed his warrior style of policing, and by publicly answering the question: who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Kiwane Carrington?”
Serving “Diversity” at Parkland
Ammons termed the Parkland hire “the ultimate insult to the community, and specifically the African American community.” He wondered why intrusive background checks can prevent an African American with a past felony from accessing a good job, yet a former police officer with such a “checkered past” as Finney can still walk into the local community college and get a job teaching future police officers how to police.
The Public i invited Tom Ramage, President of Parkland College, to comment on the controversy surrounding Finney’s suitability for teaching policing and the damage this hire may cause to Parkland relations with the local African American community. Ramage delegated the request to the Vice-President for Communications, who returned a generic statement “on behalf of the institution.” The statement did not address the concerns of the African American community, but noted only that
”Parkland College is aware of the petition and continues to welcome input on how to best serve the needs of District 505. As an open-access community college, Parkland’s students and employees reflect the diversity—and complexities—of the community we serve.”
We call on Parkland to recognize the pain in the community caused by this hiring.
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