Champaign Police Investigate “Agency Culture” of Not Following Domestic Violence Reporting Laws — Print Version

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Champaign resident Rita Conerly writes “Protect Women” using chalk outside of the Champaign Police Department on September 28, 2023. Photo by Farrah Anderson/Illinois Public Media and the Invisible Institute

A longer version of this article originally appeared on IPM Newsroom on October 9, 2023. It has been edited for space and style. See the full version here.

This story is part of a partnership between the Invisible Institute’s Champaign-Urbana Civic Police Data Project and IPM Newsroom, and was supported with funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project.

Champaign resident Rita Conerly called the police in October, 2020 because her former partner was outside her home.

Champaign Police Officer Jonathan Kristensen responded to the call. First, he spoke with Conerly, who shares children with her former partner. She told Officer Kristensen that her former partner did not have a driver’s license, but was driving anyway.

Officer Kristensen then asked Conerly if she wanted a present that her former partner, whom she had previously taken out an order of protection against, had brought her daughter.

He only spoke to Conerly for a minute and a half and left without taking a report, even after she told him the order of protection against her former partner had expired weeks earlier. That week, Conerly filed a complaint, writing that Kristensen failed to protect her.

“I didn’t feel listened to. I didn’t feel respected. I didn’t feel like they were going to respond to me appropriately,” Conerly said. The Invisible Institute generally does not identify survivors of intimate partner violence, but Conerly consented to tell her story publicly.

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The Illinois Domestic Violence Act requires officers to file a police report when investigating “an alleged incident of abuse, neglect, or exploitation between family or household members,” something the Champaign Police Department (CPD)’s policies also acknowledge.

The department mandates that if a person leaves and may return and batter the other individual, the officer is obligated to assist the other person to find a safe haven and obtain a temporary order of protection—not simply instruct the apparent subject of physical abuse to leave.

Two allegations in Conerly’s complaint against Kristensen were sustained: that he failed to investigate a reported crime, and to document that crime.

The situation was clearly a domestic violence incident based on Conerly’s allegations: her former partner was harassing her, they share a child, and her order of protection against him had recently expired, investigation documents stated.

The CPD’s investigation into her complaint found that Officer Kristensen’s conduct violated a rule which states, “Each officer shall take appropriate action on the occasion of a criminal offense, disorder, or other act or condition requiring police attention while on or off duty.” Kristensen was issued a letter of reprimand.

What Conerly didn’t know is that, just two months after she filed her complaint, the CPD would order a department-wide retraining on exactly this issue, due to regular violations like Kristensen’s.

However, experts interviewed by the Invisible Institute have questioned how effective that retraining, ordered by then-Chief Anthony Cobb, really was.

A Pattern of Non-Compliance 

In September, 2019, eleven months before Conerly called CPD, two Champaign Police officers responded to an apartment complex after a woman called 911 and said her ex-boyfriend was battering her.

When the officers met her, the woman’s clothing was torn and the man had a hand injury, according to police records.

The officers cleared the call less than 10 minutes after arriving. They took no offense report and made no arrest, just like in Conerly’s case.

Less than seven hours later, the woman called the police again after returning home, when she said the man refused to leave, according to police records. Two different officers responded—where they observed and photographed injuries on both people. They, too, didn’t make an arrest due to conflicting statements.

A CPD lieutenant found the first responding officers had conducted a substandard investigation and failed to properly document the incident in a report.

This prompted the department to conduct a wider investigation that found one of the officers had committed nine department rule violations over six months, all during domestic-related calls, and the other had committed one rule violation.

The first responding officer had been disciplined three times for failing to complete police reports prior to the investigation. Following the investigation into the September 8 complaint, then-Chief Cobb issued the officer a four-day suspension, while a second officer received counseling.

The first officer, Christopher Oberheim, was shot and killed when responding to an unrelated domestic disturbance call on May 19, 2021, after a suspect opened fire on officers.

Retraining an “Agency Culture”

While investigating the September 8 complaint, CPD recognized these weren’t isolated incidents.

The policy violations “did not occur in a vacuum,” then-Chief Cobb wrote in his review of the investigation. In every case he was disciplined for, another officer was present in addition to Oberheim—which raised “a concern of systematic or agency culture of not complying with the Illinois Domestic [Violence] Act,” Cobb wrote.

Over a year after the 2019 incident, Cobb ordered a department-wide retraining on officers’ obligations under the act, and a review of the department’s policies and practices around domestic reporting.

When requested to provide records for the retraining, the department sent a 10-question, multiple-choice online test about the state law, and a list of officers who completed the assessment.

That format was questioned by experts. “One-off trainings are not ideal for a culture change,” said Dana Cuomo, a Lafayette College professor who studies police responses to intimate partner violence.

The questions drove home that officers should document their responses to domestic disturbance calls, including photographing injuries and writing a police report, even if an arrest is not made.

However, the assessment did not address specific questions officers should ask or other social factors and biases that may impact their actions during a call. This departs from best practices, said TK Logan, a University of Kentucky behavioral sciences professor.

Advocacy organizations and researchers report that officers often don’t properly investigate what happened.

“I’ve talked to victim after victim who say [when] police came out, they didn’t take a report,” Logan said. “We have to figure out how to make our police departments more accountable.”

CPD declined an interview, but a written statement reads that CPD utilizes “all available resources to ensure that our officers are equipped to address the concerns of our community,” listing “online policy review, in-person training at shift briefings, and group training with subject matter experts.”

CPD allowed that “limited staffing has led to a reduction in the ability to hold larger, more in-depth courses,” but insisted that it “routinely work[s] to ensure that our officers are trained and prepared to meet the needs of our residents while also being compliant with department policies and State mandates.”

All CPD sworn officers have undergone the 10-question training within the last year, CPD said in a statement. “That assessment remains part of the required review of the policy on an annual basis.”

No Further Changes

Since Anthony Cobb left his position as CPD’s chief, Timothy Tyler has been hired. The department declined to make him available for an interview.

“Chief of Police Timothy T. Tyler reviewed all policies as part of his onboarding to the department in 2022,” according to a CPD spokesperson. “He has not requested any changes to the Department’s policy or current training practices related to domestic violence.”

Rita Conerly said the retrainings don’t go far enough.

“I don’t believe that they will ever protect me effectively,” Conerly said.

Farrah Anderson is an investigative reporting fellow with the Invisible Institute and Illinois Public Media, and a journalism student at the University of Illinois.

Diana Leane reported this story as a Medill School of Journalism graduate intern.

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