URBANA — With shootings on the rise and staffing down compared to similar-sized Illinois cities, Urbana officials are making the case for growing the city's police force.
But despite three homicides in a recent two-week stretch — and a surge in what Police Chief Patrick Connolly describes as "retaliatory" shootings — it won't be an easy sell.
One city council member, Diane Marlin, says she'd rather have the conversation at the start of the next budget cycle. Another, Eric Jakobsson, says the city needs to think about mental health resources, not just adding officers.
Mayor Laurel Prussing says the city needs to act now, before another Urbana resident falls victim to gun violence.
"I want to get started this year," Prussing said. "You have to act on shooting problems very quickly."
In advance of Monday's council meeting, Prussing told The News-Gazette she's pondering a compromise: Rather than hire five new officers all at once — as she proposed on Nov. 28, two days after 21-year-old Robert Lee Brown was found fatally shot at an east Urbana home — she may amend her request to three officers during this fiscal year and two more in the next.
The likely revisions, which could be discussed Monday, come after Prussing's initial request was critiqued by some residents and council members. Prussing said staggering the hires would accommodate for the several months of training that must be completed before an officer can begin patrol work.
If council members approve the proposal, Prussing said the first three officers could be trained by April 2017. In the meantime, she said she'd look into getting already-trained officers from other jurisdictions to help out during that time.
Mayor: Raise hotel-motel tax
Connolly presented statistics to council to back up Prussing's request. In researching the number of officers in 16 other mid-sized Illinois cities, he found that Urbana had the fewest of any with a 2015 population above 25,000.
With 55 officers, Urbana (pop. 42,169) had eight fewer officers than Danville (pop. 32,056) and 13 fewer than Kankakee (pop. 26,695).
Moline, with 313 more residents, has 25 more officers than Urbana.
Meanwhile, what has until lately been a Champaign problem has become a worry in Urbana, site of four fatal shootings in 2016.
"The shootings this year, a majority of them are retaliatory in nature and the investigations are supporting that," Connolly said, noting that the C-U Fresh Start initiative is focusing on interrupting the retaliatory cycle by pinpointing and addressing those most likely to shoot next.
If Prussing's proposal is approved, Connolly said he'll use the hires as patrol officers "who can develop specialized skills in more areas," in addition to adding another detective.
Among the hurdles to getting there: the city's budget.
Marlin, who'll run for mayor in April, said she doesn't want to add more officers now, preferring to consider such action when the budget cycle begins anew. Marlin said she doesn't see a reliable means for paying more officers as things stand now.
Prussing suggested that the officers' salaries be funded by raising the hotel-motel tax — from 7 to 9 percent, which would provide an additional $300,000 — and using $120,000 per year that was saved by switching the city staff's health insurance provider.
"We increased the (hotel-motel) tax in 2011 and 2015," Marlin said. Raising it to 9 percent "would put us higher than any city nearby. Champaign's hotel-motel tax is 7 percent, and that would put our hospitality sector at a disadvantage.
"We shouldn't count on (health care savings) to fund anything because the whole health care field is too volatile," she added, "especially now."
Marlin: Need more time
In addition, Marlin said the city found out Wednesday that it owes an extra $800,000 for the MCORE street joint project. Plus, she said, Urbana might have to cut $1 million from its budget if it loses its legal fight with Carle over property taxes, and union contracts are up for negation next year, which could increase salary and pension costs.
Jakobsson raised another issue: the need to devote more resources to mental health alongside additional police personnel.
"We ought to be setting aside funds for everyone who comes into contact with the criminal justice system for the first time so they can get a rapid mental health evaluation and, if warranted, receive a detailed diagnosis and further treatment, no matter what course the criminal justice system takes with that person," Jakobsson said, noting that the evaluation would likely need to be voluntary to be constitutionally viable. "People who come out of the criminal justice system should emerge stabilized."
Prussing said she's working with Champaign County, the city of Champaign and Urbana police on developing a mental health resource center so "people aren't being put in jail because there's no other place for them."
There's no clear consensus among residents. One who addressed the council said she was in favor of adding five more officers. Other residents chose not to comment publicly at last week's meeting but put into the record that they're against adding officers.
Marlin said she wants Urbana residents to remember that the council is in the early stages of discussing this issue.
"People need to realize this dropped out of the sky without any forewarning or anticipation so (the council) needs to gather information," Marlin said. "We need to make a good policy decision and that's why we're taking time to decide this."
According to Connolly's statistics, there have been 26 proven reports of shots fired within the Urbana police department's jurisdiction from Jan. 1 to Nov. 29. Fifteen of those resulted in property damage, 12 resulted in injuries and four resulted in deaths.
These numbers, prepared by Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly in advance of his presentation to the city council, compare officer totals in Illinois towns by population:
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