At their Monday night Committee of the Whole meeting, Urbana City Council members condemned the police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Earlier Monday, several city officials had participated in a demonstration on the streets of downtown Urbana in George Floyd’s memory. But afterwards, the city council members heard criticism of some of their own officers, regarding the arrest of Aleyah Lewis made by Urbana Police in April.
Close to 100 people showered the online council meeting with Zoom calls and emails. They said that Urbana Police would not have wrestled and body-slammed the 21-year-old Lewis if she had been white. Lewis was arrested on April 10 during a gun investigation involving her companion.
One of the Zoom calls came from Cunningham Township Supervisor (and former Urbana city council member) Danielle Chynoweth.
“We are lucky Aleyah Lewis is still alive,” said Chynoweth. “But she is deeply traumatized by her torture by Urbana Police.”
Many of those who spoke or emailed demanded that charges against Lewis be dropped, and the officers who arrested her be placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation.
The Urbana Police Department and the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office said officers acted appropriately in the case. But in response to the criticism, Mayor Diane Marlin announced in May that the city would hire an outside firm to do another investigation of the arrest. At Monday night’s council meeting, Marlin said the city was close to choosing that firm.
“This firm will also be doing direct stakeholder engagement,” said Marlin. “So it means they will be talking directly to members of the community. You know, how that all’s going to work hasn’t been defined yet. But that was an important part of selecting a firm who could do that.”
A police official serving on the Urbana City Council said the outside review is a good idea.
“As a police executive, I [too] look forward to a review process,” said Alderman William Colbrook (R-Ward 6), public safety director and chief of police at Parkland College, “because the entire intent of a review process is to make sure that regardless of what position we start in, we always want to make ourselves better.”
Alderman Jared Miller wants to go further. At Monday’s city council meeting, the Ward 7 Democrat said the conduct of the Minneapolis officers in the George Floyd case showed the need for systemic change in police operations.
“We have to fundamentally change how police departments operate, how they are overseen,” said Miller, “and how they execute the job that they have been given to do in our community.”
Miller is proposing a special council meeting or series of meetings on Urbana police operations. He wants to include community input in the meeting, with the opportunity for discussion between residents and city officials.
In an interview Tuesday for Illinois Newsroom, Miller said he wants the meeting to cover all aspects of police operations. He said focusing on one issue, such as the Aleyah Lewis arrest, isn’t enough.
“If the independent investigation finds that Officer Cervantes and Officer Ruff acted inappropriately in that situation, it’s not going to solve the issue of the systemic problems that led to why they felt it was okay to do what they did during that arrest,” said Miller.
Miller wants to hold the special meeting on police operations this month.
Mayor Marlin says that could be difficult, because the city council’s June agenda is already filled with budget and other items that must be dealt with soon.
Meanwhile, the discussion of police issues Monday night pushed much of the Urbana City Council’s agenda to a special meeting scheduled for Wednesday, June 3, at 7 p.m.
That agenda includes a report from the city’s Citizens Police Review Board, an agency that some say has been ineffective in checking police misconduct.
Agenda and materials for the June 3 Urbana City Council meeting are online.