CHAMPAIGN — Maybe the dialogue started Thursday night.
In a public interview session, the first of its kind in Champaign, citizens got a face-to-face chat with the four finalists to replace retiring Police Chief R.T. Finney. All the job candidates said communication will be the key to redeveloping relationships with the community.
But the candidates got some information from residents, too — the pre-determined questions they were asked on Thursday night came from citizens through interest groups like the NAACP, ACLU and the League of Women Voters.
The topics of discussion mirrored issues that have been persistent lately: Candidates were asked for their feelings about police department morale, a citizen review board, residency requirements for officers and how to repair a strained relationship with the city's black community.
Thursday night's forum focused less on law enforcement tactics and more on what each candidate would do to improve community relations if he or she got the job.
"If a new chief truly wants to be successful in this community, he needs to get buy-in. Not only from the community, but from the department," said job candidate Anthony Cobb, currently Urbana's assistant chief of police.
Cobb said he would "give more credibility to the position right off the bat" because he grew up in the community. He's a product of Champaign public schools, and he has already been working with law enforcement agencies in the area for years.
He said that if he finds himself in the chief's office, he will be sure to get out into the community.
"I need to be accessible to the community and the people," Cobb said. "In order to do that, you gotta see me."
Oak Forest Police Chief Gregory Anderson said he gave the opportunity some thought when he first saw the job posting. What sold him, he said, was his experience last month at a meeting of a group called the Champaign Community and Police Partnership, whose members comprise both police and citizens.
He was "extremely excited" in hearing the community's interest in the police department, he said.
"Building public trust and maintaining public trust is the cornerstone of successful policing," Anderson said.
It's the public trust in the Champaign Police Department that seems to have diminished in some parts of the community in recent years. That was reflected in questions like one that asked what the candidates would do to repair the damage to police-community relations that has been done by "high-profile incidents," like arrests involving the use of pepper spray and the October 2009 fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington.
"To get change, you need communication," said Antoinette Filla, who currently serves as a lieutenant colonel in the St. Louis Police Department. She added that both the department and the community have to work together.
Filla, who has amassed 38 years as a member of the St. Louis police force, said she has experience working in "depressed" parts of town. To get improvement, police need to listen to the residents, she said.
"I'm not going to go into a community and tell you what your problems are," she said.
Kim Johnson, a captain in the East Lansing, Mich., police department, said a change of leadership at the police department's highest level is a good time to "get things moving in the right direction."
"I think any time when a change of leadership takes place, it's a time to get to know each other and see where the morale is," Johnson said.
He said the chief needs to cultivate a mutual feeling of respect between officers and those they police.
"As long as we're doing everything the right way, treating people with dignity and respect, we'll be OK," Johnson said.
Many of the attendees of Thursday night's forum, however, are not directly involved in the selection process. A search committee plans to finish up private interviews with the candidates today, and City Manager Steve Carter likely will make his appointment in January.
Mayor Don Gerard said citizens who picked a favorite after hearing from the candidates on Thursday should call his office or their city council representative.
"I would encourage people to not say they like one person the best," Gerard said. "Really tell us why."
Gerard said he had already sat through private interviews with all the candidates, so he spent most of Thursday night watching the audience and gauging its reaction to the candidates.
Now it's time to move forward, he said.
"We have a situation in Champaign where we have a great police force and we have a great community, and we need to integrate," Gerard said.