As Police Budget Swells, Safety Forum Articulates a Different Vision

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Crime is going down in Urbana, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at Urbana’s police budget. After a $2.25 million increase in the police budget in the last two years—largely for salary increases and bonuses—Urbana leadership is pushing to hire 15 new police officers for another approximate $2 million. In sum, these recent and proposed sums represent a 34 percent increase that is likely to come with a tax increase. On December 4, a proposal to hire the first four was put on pause by the Urbana City Council after dozens of residents spoke up with concerns.

This focus on policing and criminal justice comes at a time when members of the community and city council have expressed strong interest in investigating alternative public safety models. Per council request, a study of alternative models is currently underway, with a report expected this spring. At a recent series of police listening sessions, community members questioned the centrality of criminal justice in the discussion of public safety. Attendees brought up material necessities like housing, health care, food, employment, and recreation as vital components of public safety.

Seeking to broaden the conversation, the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center held a Community Safety Forum on December 10, hosted by James Corbin of FirstFollowers and Danielle Chynoweth, Cunningham Township Supervisor. The event was attended by a diverse crowd of about 75 people. Speakers included Cunningham Township Housing Case Manager Martel Miller, artist and educator Sam Smith, CU Trauma and Resiliency Initiative founder and Executive Director Karen Simms, skateboarder Andrew Valentine, and labor historian Dr. Gus Wood.

Mr. Miller spoke first from his experience doing street outreach for Cunningham Township. He stressed the need for additional staff, shelter space, and affordable housing opportunities, noting that he is aware of about one hundred residents currently without shelter, while the STRIDES Emergency Shelter in Champaign only has a base capacity for 64 people. “You can’t police yourself out of poverty,” Miller said.

As a caseworker with FirstFollowers, Mr. Corbin supports residents that are recently returning from being incarcerated. He shared that individuals are only given $10 and a bus ticket when released from prison, so material needs are an immediate concern and opportunities for affordable housing and employment are in short supply—leaving returning citizens without alternatives. Corbin’s work through FirstFollowers focuses on providing assistance and support to persons who might otherwise get stuck in cycles of violence.

CU Trauma and Resilience Initiative’s Dr. Simms touched on similar topics while speaking from her experience supporting families and community members impacted by gun violence. She stressed that more police does not lead to less crime: “Law enforcement is a symptom of the problem. It does not solve the problem.” Simms stressed that the work needed to build safer communities and reduce crime needs to be supportive and healing. “We can talk all day but if we don’t address structural harm and woundedness, we won’t get anywhere. We get sick in community and get well in community.”

Smith and Valentine also spoke about the emotional and psychological elements of crime reduction and safety. Art and expression provide a means of finding voice, confidence, community, connection, and healing.

Dr. Wood shared a historical perspective on the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and explained significant differences in the structure and function of the FOP that make it unlike labor unions and essentially opposed to the interest of working people, by insulating police from accountability.

The panel concluded with a skateboarding demonstration and an open discussion and brainstorm with attendees. Community members expressed enthusiasm to build on the discussion and ensure that the city’s investments reflect residents’ values.

This significant investment in policing would surely come at the expense of investment in other city services at a time when crime, after the national spike during the pandemic, has precipitously dropped, according to annual crime statistics by the FBI. Note the above chart, which shows crime rate per population and the police budget, including recent and proposed increases, for Urbana.

Mirroring national and state statistics, crime in Urbana plummeted in 2022 after a 2020 spike which analysts largely associate with the social upheaval of the pandemic. Along with a relative return to normal as the COVID-19 lockdowns lifted, massive federal, state, and local pandemic recovery investments in poverty alleviation and social services likely also contributed to the reduction of crime. Federal stimulus funds, state tax credits, a township anti-poverty referendum, and city and county investment of one-time American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds have all helped our community weather a pandemic and unemployment storm. Indeed, this precipitous drop in crime at a time of unprecedented investment in community organizations and families corroborates the observation shared by the panel participants, and supports the assertion that community investment would have a larger impact on public safety than hiring more police.

At the UCIMC panel as well as the City of Urbana listening sessions, community members also noted that a lack of community resources puts unnecessary strain on police departments. “It is hard to stomach another $1.5 million for 15 police officers, when we have less than one full-time street outreach worker for both cities,” Chynoweth shared. “This week alone police cleared 24 homeless residents out of an abandoned building, but the shelter is completely full—and we have dozens more sleeping outside in the cold. It is a moral injury to police officers to ask them to move people into the freezing cold; and a serious safety risk when we don’t invest in housing.” She has since met with new Urbana Chief of Police Larry Boone, and they are working on how to collaborate on responding to calls about homelessness.

The new Urbana chief of police appears to share the community’s enthusiasm for alternative public safety models. At his former department in Norfolk, CT, police officers were able to drop off victims of domestic violence at the Family Justice Center at the Norfolk YMCA, where they could receive social, legal, and advocacy services at once in one place. The chief shared that this service was vital in reducing the burden on police while supporting victims, reducing stigma, and preventing future domestic-violence incidents. Boone also included the need for strong and committed partnerships with social service organizations in his “6 Pillars of 21st-Century Policing” proposal.

While the current police proposal is not a good match for Urbana’s goals, it does appear that there could be some common ground between community and police when it comes to investing in partnerships with local agencies and creating alternative models for public safety. Should we support a tax increase for more of the same, with no commitment to innovative public safety measures with a history of success?

Jane McClintock is a long-time Ur­bana resident. Jane currently serves on the board of the Urbana-Cham­paign Independent Media Center and on the Champaign County ACLU Steering Committee.

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