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Police Reform Issues Loom Large Before Urbana City Council

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A lineup of Urbana police cars.

URBANA — A set of shared goals and standards for police and communities of color was approved by the Urbana City Council Monday night. Council members also heard a new proposal for shifting response to mental health emergencies away from the police, and on Tuesday, made last-minute reductions to police spending in the new city budget.

“One Door” Proposal For Mental Health Emergencies

Mayor Diane Marlin made her proposal at a meeting that featured public comment from dozens of community members, calling for defunding the police and questioning their effectiveness. Marlin says the police spend a lot of time on people undergoing mental health emergencies. But she says they’re in a poor position to help them, because the options they can offer are jail, a trip to the hospital, or somehow resolving the crisis at the scene. The mayor said none of those options provide a long-term solution to mental health problems. Instead, Marlin called for creation of a new program to be called “One Door”, by which police would bring in trained mental health workers to address problems in a variety of ways.

“One Door will reduce the police contact with people in crisis, by providing a trained crisis worker in the field, and a case manager who can help the individual identify and receive the appropriate services,” said Marlin.

The mayor said Urbana Police Lt. Joel Sanders, whose training includes Mental Health First Aid, has been meeting with Carle, Rosecrance, C-U at Home and other agencies that could provide meaningful help for persons with mental illness.

Marlin says she’ll present a formal budget proposal for the One Door program to the Urbana City Council in August. She calls the proposal a first step in “restructuring our emergency response and care system to one that better addresses the needs of the people, especially ones who are calling for help”. But, speaking after dozens of community members called for defunding the police, Marlin said her vision was for services that complemented the police instead of replacing them, and that both are needed.

“Ten Shared Principles” Affirmed

Also on Monday night, the Urbana City Council voted unanimously to affirm the “Ten Shared Principles” for policing and communities of color. These guidelines for improving police-community relations were drawn up in 2018 by the Illinois NAACP State Conference and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. They have already been embraced by other police departments across the state, including the nearby departments of Champaign, Rantoul, the University of Illinois and Parkland College (Parkland’s police chief, William Colbrook, is an Urbana alderman and joined other council members in endorsing the document).

The Ten Shared Principles include endorsements of community policing, strong ongoing relationships between law enforcement and communities of color, and diversity in police recruitment and hiring, and required de-escalation training for all law enforcement officers.

Speaking on Monday prior to the city council meeting, Urbana Police Chief Bryant Seraphin said that “generally speaking, I think the department lives up to” the Ten Shared Principles. As deputy chief in 2017, he attended one of the workshops that helped formulate the guidelines. Seraphin says his department is “at a good starting point”, when it comes to its use of de-escalation techniques.

Hear in interview with Seraphin about the Ten Shared Principles and his thought on calls for defunding police:

Police critics contend that de-escalation techniques were lacking when Urbana police arrested Aleyha Lewis on April 10, in an incident involving her companion’s arrest on a gun charge. They say that bystander video of the struggle between police and the unarmed Lewis show that charges against her should be dropped. Seraphin has said the arrest was handled properly.

The city council resolution affirming the Ten Shared Principles also calls for a structured workshop to be held in September. The workshop will bring police and a representative cross-section of community members together (in small numbers due to COVID-19 restrictions) to work on problems in police-community relations.

“This is not an attack session, this is not a blame-you, this kind of session,” said Minnie Pearson, president of the Champaign County NAACP chapter. “This is a let’s-work-it-out, that’s going to benefit every citizen, youth in our community, police, everybody in the community. It’s a dialogue, a fresh breath, actually. And when we come together and train, you will say, I’m so sorry we didn’t get this done sooner.”

But the Ten Shared Principles document got a cold reception from several of the critics of police who addressed the city council, including Christopher Hanson.

 “More press releases and posters and declarations with flowery language like these Shared Principles, that isn’t real change, because the city doesn’t actually follow any of these mission statements that they adopt,” said Hanson. “They just become talking points and claims for things that aren’t actually happening.”

Also at the Urbana City Council meeting, Mayor Marlin announced that the Chicago firm of Hillard Heintze had been hired to investigate allegations of excessive force in the Aleyha Lewis arrest.

On their website, Hillard Heintze promotes their expertise in investigating allegations made against police in cases that include the use of force. They note that videos of police conduct recorded by the public has been a game changer.

“Today, anyone with a handheld device can capture, share and comment on any unfolding event in their immediate field of experience in seconds,” according to the Hillard Heintze website.

Police Spending Trimmed For New Budget

After meeting for more than four hours on Monday, the Urbana City Council continued their meeting on Tuesday, approving a new $47 million city budget that included last-minute reductions in police spending.

The cuts amount to more than $100,000 out of the roughly $11 million allocated for the Urbana Police Department. 

With an eye towards calls for police reform, council members voted to delay replacement of a K-9 squad car, and reduce police personnel spending by two percent.

Alderman Jared Miller had wanted a four percent reduction, noting that supporters of defunding the police were calling for a 50 percent reduction. Alderman, and Parkland College police chief, Bill Colbrook opposed any cuts in personnel. 

Alderman Dennis Roberts said the two percent reduction was at a start.

“We could go two percent now, and show good faith to the community, and we might be able to improve this situation in the future,” said Roberts. “So, you know, we’re compromising. But I think it can be a positive step and considered to be thoughtful.”

City council member were calculating that the reductions would still allow for the scheduled hiring of a new patrol officer, although some positions left empty due to retirements may not be filled. Ald. Colbrook warned that the number of police officers per capita in Urbana is already lower than most comparable Illinois cities, at a time when Champaign-Urbana is seeing an increase in shooting incidents.

The savings from reductions in the police budget could go towards the proposed One Door program to address mental health emergencies. That program could provide savings for the Urbana Police Department, because officers would not have to spend as much time attending to cases involving people with mental illness. 

Urbana city officials plan to revisit the budget in the fall for possible changes, depending on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on city revenue. 

The Urbana City Council will meet again, Thursday evening, June 25, at 7 PM. The special meeting will seek public input on “existing concerns with policing in Urbana” and “new ideas on the community role in policing”. 

UPDATE: This article was revised to include audio of an interview with Urbana police chief Bryant Seraphin, and new information from the Tuesday, June 23 meeting.. – Jim Meadows 6/23-24/20

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Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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