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Police Reform A Major Issue In Urbana Mayoral Race

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Urbana mayoral candidates L-R: Incumbent Mayor Diane Marlin, Ald. Dennis Roberts, Andy Ma.

URBANA – Racial justice and police reform have been on the minds of Americans across the nation. And they’re a major issue in the race for mayor of Urbana. The three candidates running for the post in the Feb. 23 Democratic primary in Urbana all say they would make change in the city’s police policies.

Listen to this story here.

Last April, Urbana Police officers wrestled with and struck a young Black woman named Aleyah Lewis during an arrest. Cellphone video of the arrest went viral, just as the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd was inspiring nationwide protests over police treatment of African-Americans. Many found the video disturbing, and Urbana City Council members heard criticism of their police department and how the arrest was handled during Public Comment periods for several weeks afterwards. Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin said she was disturbed by the arrest video, too.

“It was shocking to see and I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did,” said Marlin. “So what we’re learning from that incident, and our policy is going to reflect many of the recommendations that came from the independent review of the incident.”

The independent review by Hillard Heintze, a consulting firm chosen by Marlin, concluded that the officers involved followed the Urbana Police use of force policy correctly during the arrest, but that the policy itself should be revised to emphasize de-escalation techniques to defuse confrontations. Besides endorsing that change, the 67-year-old Marlin says she supports looking at whether many calls to police could be better handled by someone else, as she argued in a League of Women Voters candidates’ forum.

Hear the three Urbana mayoral candidate talk about police reform and other issues, in interviews with Illinois Newsroom’s Jim Meadows: 

Andy Ma

Diane Marlin

Dennis Roberts

“It could be a police officer, it could be mental health professionals, social service professional, it could be a specially trained civilian,” said Marlin. “But, first thing we have to do, why are people calling, and who can best meet the needs of the caller and deal with the situation that they find when they arrive.” 

One step towards that end is the Open Door program, which Marlin announced last August.  The program’s objective is to establish response teams that can step in to provide mental health services, when police are called to to help people in crisis. Once expected to begin operations in February, Marlin says the program is still in development.

But Marlin says the Urbana Police Department took an important step toward implementing reforms last year with its endorsement of the “Ten Shared Principles” established jointly by the Illinois NAACP and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. The principles are meant to lay a foundation for improved relations between police and the Black community, encouraging communications between police and community leaders, community policing, diversity in police hiring and recruiting, the de-escalation techniques recommended in the Hillard Heintze report.

 But one of Marlin’s challengers – longtime Alderman Dennis Roberts — says the mayor hasn’t gone far enough to turn the endorsement of principals into concrete action.

“You know, it’s one thing to adopt a resolution of support or make a statement like a proclamation,” said Roberts. “But it’s like putting a postage stamp on a boulder, and you think you paid for the delivery, but the boulder is still sitting there in the room and it hasn’t moved an inch.”

The 74-year-old Roberts told the League of Women Voters forum that changing how the Urbana Police Department actually performs won’t be as easy as passing a resolution through city council.

“Many of the policies that they’d like to achieve are somewhat hindered by the fact that state law and the police-negotiated work contract with the city have a great deal to do with police oversight and responsibility. So these are things that we’d like to address and look at in the future.“

Roberts and Mayor Marlin both say they do not support defunding the police. Marlin says the phrase has no clear definition, and Roberts says he doesn’t want to defund but redirect the police. But another mayoral candidate, Andy Ma, expressed a different view at the candidates’ forum.

“I think we should seriously consider defunding the police,” said Ma, “and putting the resources that police currently have in alternative means, such as social work, and making sure the people of Urbana have all their basic needs met.”

The 22-year-old Ma is a Democratic precinct committee member, and a recent University of Illinois graduate with a degree in Political Science. The Memphis, Tennessee native calls the Aleyah Lewis arrest a blatant example of police brutality, and says a lot of Urbana’s police budget should be diverted to social programs that help people avoid the dire straits that can lead to police altercations.

“You know, by the time police are called, it’s too late for a lot of people,” said Ma. “And it’s better to deal with these issues early on. And the police have been taking up a lot of our city’s resources. And it hasn’t really made our city safer.”

Ma is part of an informal slate of progressive candidates running for city offices in Urbana. They include aldermanic candidates Christopher Hansen and Meghan McDonald,  who frequently called for police reforms at city council meetings following the controversial arrest of Aleyah Lewis.  (McDonald is running against Chaundra Bishop for the Democratic nomination for the Ward 5 seat on the city council, while Hansen is running against fellow Democrats Christopher Evans and incumbent Erik Sacks, and Party For Socialism And Liberation candidate Colin Dodson in Ward 2.)

The winner of the Feb. 23 Urbana Democratic mayoral primary will run unopposed in the April 6 consolidated election. No Republican, independent or third party candidates have filed to run for the office.

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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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