Council hears report on Champaign police changes

Council hears report on Champaign police changes

CHAMPAIGN — It has been awhile since a city council discussion on the Champaign Police Department has drawn no public comment from audience members — good or bad.

That is what happened on Tuesday night as Police Chief Anthony Cobb and Lt. Jon Swenson delivered a report on the changes that have been made to the department's professional standards division since Cobb was hired about 11 months ago.

The professional standards division handles police officer training, grants, special events, alcohol and tobacco enforcement, and the investigation of citizen complaints against officers. The latter of those duties has been one of the more politicized in the past few years, particularly during times of tension between the police department and the city's black community.

Last year was one of the department's less busy years as far as citizen complaints against police officers, Swenson said. Police received 18 complaints and 28 allegations of misconduct against 19 officers (one complaint may involve more than one accusation or police officer). Most dealt with accusations that officers were rude or discourteous.

After police investigated those complaints, four were sustained.

Compare those 18 complaints with the 71,710 calls for service the department received last year, Swenson said. Police also documented 48 favorable commendations from residents.

"I think we're getting it right at a very high rate," he said.

Swenson and Cobb said the department has taken steps to improve its professional standards division and to better engage citizens. The report got favorable reviews from city council members.

"Once again, I think you've identified a problem and you've created a fix," said council member Paul Faraci.

One of those changes was to involve the city's community relations office in the complaint review process. If community relations staff disagree with the police department's ruling on a citizen complaint, the city could convene a review committee to address the discrepancy.

"I think by having the review through the community relations office does open it up for the citizens and gives them another opportunity," said council member Karen Foster. "It is a way for them to have their voice heard, and yet they have some accountability with the police department also."

Swenson said, however, that the city should develop a comprehensive policy about how to respond to inquiries about citizen complaints. Right now, the department releases final letters of discipline when anyone asks for public documents concerning those complaints.

But he said questions still exist about what to do with inquiries about citizen complaints where the allegation was found to be false or consistent with department policy.

"There are differing opinions internally," Swenson said.

The police department has continued to deny releasing the names of those officers after public records requests from The News-Gazette, despite rulings from the Illinois attorney general that the information should be made public under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

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