Cobb: Tested, challenged, 'a lot more left to do'
CHAMPAIGN — Before he took over as Champaign's police chief one year ago today, Anthony Cobb warned that there were obstacles to overcome and that it wouldn't happen overnight.
A year later, he and city officials say there has been significant progress, but there is still more work ahead.
"I've seen a lot in my first year, and probably more than most first-year chiefs," Cobb said. "We've been tested, we've been challenged, but there's still a lot more left to do."
Cobb has spent most of his first year dealing with internal issues, he said. That means getting the department to work together rather than dealing with pockets of discontent.
Before Cobb arrived, the department had what Mayor Don Gerard calls a "severe faction" of people lodging complaints against their supervisors and co-workers. It was harming morale for everybody, Gerard said.
An unprecedented shuffling of department staff followed Cobb's arrival as he worked for months to fill vacancies created by retirements and promotions. Gerard said Cobb has created an environment where police officials are in a position to succeed.
"He got people to buy in immediately, and he's doing a really fantastic job of creating a unified force for the police," Gerard said.
Cobb said that, upon his arrival, police employees were concerned that he was going to try to turn the Champaign department into the Urbana Police Department. He was, after all, the outgoing assistant police chief in Urbana, where he had spent the first 20 years of his career.
"That was not my approach," Cobb said. "My attitude was try to assess the organization: where we're at, what we do well, what we can do better."
What the department did well: Cobb said he heard from police staff that the department felt it provided good service to citizens when they needed help and sound tactical response when a situation would arise.
What the department did not do well was obvious when he spoke with employees, he said.
"It was overwhelming from the majority of staff. Community relations were abysmal when I got here," Cobb said. "We recognized that there was a lot we could do in that area to improve."
During the time that Cobb has been police chief, city officials across all departments — and particularly with help from police officials — have built up efforts to engage community members.
A "community coalition" comprising city officials and community members, including leaders of nonprofit organizations and other groups, has convened to address all kinds of community issues. Police-community relations and other public safety-related items are often part of those talks.
Volunteers have regularly initiated "Walk As One" events, for which they go door-to-door distributing information related to public safety. Last month, police and other volunteers canvassed Campustown to talk about the dangers and consequences of binge drinking with students in advance of Unofficial St. Patrick's Day.
In October, those volunteers went door-to-door in the troubled Bristol Park neighborhood to distribute information about crime prevention and to work with residents to address neighborhood concerns.
Champaign resident Seon Williams has been deeply involved in a lot of those efforts for more than three years, since the October 2009 fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington. Many community members felt the shooting could have been prevented had the police and black teens been more comfortable with each other.
But since then, Williams said, he has seen change for the better.
"I see us being more involved, more engaged," Williams said. "Our community's coming together and being able to heal from Kiwane."
The "community coalition" and simply having better access to police officials has been a big part of that, he said. He thinks the Champaign Police Department is even beginning to be a role model for other cities looking to bolster police-community relations.
"I think it's a positive thing," Williams said. "We're showing a road map to other communities."
And that has a reciprocal effect on police officers, Gerard said.
"Officers are far more likely to do their job well if they feel they have the support of the community, but that takes outreach and investment," he said.
Gerard said, not to take away from Cobb's contribution, but the city is beginning to find itself in a more "fortuitous situation," too. While city revenues have not rebounded to pre-recession levels, they are making a comeback, and that allows city officials to bolster police resources.
"It's a combination of Chief Cobb having a vision, getting people to buy in," Gerard said. "But at the same time the city's budget is in much better shape."
Cobb said strategic planning for the department — a "vision" for where officials want to be three or five years out — will be a big project in the immediate future. Maintaining positive relationships with community groups and residents will be a priority, too.
As far as his first year, Cobb thinks he is "ahead of schedule" in gaining the trust of both the community and his employees.
"I think I'm taking steps to get there," Cobb said. "Am I completely there? No. It takes time for that to happen. The more time we spend together, the better the relationship and the stronger the relationship will be."
Williams said, from here on out, he wants to see the community "taking its stand," too.
"We can get whatever chief or whatever mayor or whatever city manager," he said, "but unless the community comes together and shows some genuine love, it makes the jobs of those department heads that much tougher."