CHAMPAIGN — A few dozen community members have specific suggestions for how they would like to see the police department move forward under a new police chief, and their comments come only days before city officials begin interviewing four candidates for the job.
That group met on Monday night in a conversational setting at the Douglass Branch Library, and talked about change in the relationship between the police department and the community.
"The people need to be accountable for what happens in their community, and the police need to be accountable for their actions," said Artice James, repeating one of the major themes that was discussed in his small group.
The community members at Monday night's meeting said they are concerned about who is at the helm of the department, which has been put under a microscope in recent years. The October 2009 fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington highlighted a strained relationship.
More recent events, like a June 5 arrest, during which a Champaign officer used pepper spray to detain a pedestrian who apparently was stopped for jaywalking, have put more distance between the department and some segments of the community. City Manager Steve Carter called that arrest "troubling," and it ultimately led to an FBI investigation of whether the officer committed criminal civil rights violations. On Monday, the FBI cleared the officer.
But that has not silenced the community's concerns, especially as Police Chief R.T. Finney plans to retire in January and leave the city's top cop position open for new leadership.
"It's a total disconnect in how the police view the community and how the community views the police," Seon Williams' table suggested to the group.
Attendees on Monday hoped to influence the questions that will be posed to the four finalists for the police chief job this week. The four will be in the Champaign City Council chambers for 30 minutes each during a public interview on Thursday night, beginning at 7 p.m. The event will be televised on CGTV channel 5.
Each candidate will have a chance to make a statement to the community, and then will be asked pre-determined questions during the public forum. The questions will not be publicized before Thursday night's interview.
The public event is an additional step in the interview process. All the candidates will be in town this week for private interviews with a 24-member search committee, too.
Citizens who met at the Douglass library on Monday also made specific suggestions on how the department and community might mend the relationship. Williams suggested more transparency and cultural training is needed.
"No department or business is always correct," he said.
Carol Ammons, a Champaign County Board member and activist, said the department should "change the rules of engagement from a problem-centered approach to a community-centered approach."
Bill Glithero, a member of the city's human relations commission, said maybe it is time to start discussing a citizen review board to mediate complaints against officers.
As Champaign City Council member Will Kyles' table discussed "What does a safe community look like?" — one of the questions posed to the group — he suggested the police department can find a balance.
"Police can be more proactive without being too hostile," he said.