Champaign city officials say they just want the facts surrounding a Campustown incident. But, at this point, will they really matter?
To the chagrin of some and the amazement of more, the city council this week laid the groundwork for spending between $60,000 to $100,000 to conduct yet a fourth examination of a June incident in which a police officer used pepper spray to subdue an unruly 22-year-old man.
The question council members want answered is whether the police officer acted appropriately when he stopped the young man for jaywalking and then used pepper spray on him after he loudly complained about being stopped. To make that judgment, they claim, the city needs a complete re-examination of what transpired that includes statements from all the witnesses.
"I'm really do hope (the police officer) is vindicated, but vindicated in a way that most of the community trusts the result," said Council Member Tom Bruno.
Public opinion on the issue was inflamed after the release of police video showing the officer using pepper spray to stop the youth's protests. Another portion of the video shows the officer struggling with the youth in the back seat of a squad car.
The question is to what extent people can be influenced by yet another analysis of what happened. As is usually the case in incidents like this, public opinion is split between those who support the police and those who believe the officer over-reacted.
Bruno said he's hoping the proposed re-examination by an investigator with no ties to the community will reassure those people in the middle who have questions but no firm opinion.
The June incident recently came to light after the youth's lawyer, Mark Lipton, went public with complaints about his client's treatment and, in response, State's Attorney Julia Rietz dropped the charges against him.
When city council members looked into the matter, they learned that Police Chief R.T. Finney had reviewed the man's complaint about the officer's conduct and found the officer had acted within departmental policy. City council members then asked the Illinois State Police to take a second look, one they hoped would be in-depth, to see if any laws were violated. But after only a cursory review, state police also concluded the officer's actions were appropriate under the circumstances.
Finally, the FBI reviewed the case in search of possible civil-rights violations and found none.
What city officials now are pursuing is, at best, a very extensive public relations effort that seeks to persuade the public that they are trying to do the right thing. So it's not just the officer's conduct that will be reviewed but also whether the policies under which he was acting are appropriate.
But, at worst, it's easy to see an ill-advised and expensive attempt to secure a report with conclusions and recommendations council members will find politically palatable, in other words a pretext for penalizing the officer and pacifying the officer's critics.
They'll fail either way. A police officer whose actions have been sustained by three reviews isn't likely to be vulnerable by virtue of a fourth — no matter how expensive.
And those who are critical by virtue of what they've seen on the video aren't likely to be placated if a fourth review vindicates the officer.
City officials have acted professionally to date. Their best recourse now is to accept the professional opinions they have received.