CHAMPAIGN — The city’s top cop has several concerns but no solutions about proposed changes to the way citizens file complaints about police officers.
Champaign police Chief Anthony Cobb appeared before the citizen review subcommittee this week to address recommendations the 2-year-old, five-person commission made in late May. The chief left the meeting agreeing to work with members of the group but not ready to sign off on any of the four changes to the process they had suggested.
“I didn’t come in here today with any proposals or anything like that; I came here more to understand what you all had to say,” Cobb said. “I saw your initial report but I didn’t know if you tweaked it since then, so I didn’t know what I would find when I got here. So I wanted to make sure I came here open and ready to listen and express my concern.”
No substantial changes were made to the proposals since they were finalized in May, Chairwoman Emily Rodriguez said.
The four recommendations included:
— Eliminating altogether the time limit citizens must file a complaint by, which is currently 30 days after an incident occurs.
— Folding mediation opportunities into the complaint hearing process. As things stand now, mediation is a rarely requested option.
— Humanizing the process by creating an anonymous filing option and adding more complaint filing locations (beyond the City Building and police headquarters), such as libraries and churches.
— Inviting the complainant’s participation and feedback both during and after the process.
The subcommittee was created in 2017, in the wake of multiple excessive-force allegations against now twice-fired Champaign police Officer Matt Rush. Its stated mission is to promote public confidence in the police department, to offer policy recommendations and to engage the public to improve community-police relations.
It’s headed up by Rodriguez, a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois, and includes four other citizens who were appointed to their seats by Mayor Deb Feinen in October 2017.
Monday was their fifth meeting this year — specially called to allow Cobb to comment on recommendations he received in July.
Role of body cameras
Among the issues he raised:
— On eliminating the 30-day time limit, Cobb said he would be open for a “revamp” because the current process doesn’t take into account the amount of staff time it takes the department to review complaints before handing them over to the subcommittee.
“As far as going to unlimited time, that concerns me to some degree,” Cobb said. “Recognize some incidents involving contact officers have with citizens, we record everything with body cameras so we can have an independent review. Some of that (footage) rolls off (the server) after 90 days, per state law. We can’t keep it longer than that, so once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Cobb added that there are some cases when body-camera footage could be kept longer than the 90 days: footage of a forcible felony, for example, is kept for a minimum of 10 years; footage of a misdemeanor or low-level felony is kept for three.
Also, body-camera footage that’s been flagged must be kept for a minimum of two years — be it because a complaint was filed, officially or unofficially, or due to a number of other factors.
Subcommittee member Demario Turner said he wouldn’t want Cobb to “just consider the body-cam footage” when making his decision about eliminating complaint time limits.
“We haven’t always relied on (cameras) in our legal system,” Turner said. “We rely on investigations, eyewitness testimony and outsiders or community member testimony.”
When asked by subcommittee member Melissa Keeble whether he had any recommendation for what the time limit should change to, Cobb said he did not.
'You're the chief of police'
— On the proposal to make mediation a part of the process, Cobb said “both sides have to be willing to do it.” Also, he said, the department would have to “walk through (any such change) with our employees,” adding that “some boys could consider it” if mediation meant that both sides must participate.
Despite the subcommittee's recommendation that the process for mediation be voluntary, member Alexandra Harmon-Threatt wondered if participation of the officer would be required if a citizen requested it.
“Doesn’t that become part of your job?” Harmon-Threatt asked.
Cobb said requiring mediation would become a legal issue, because of the double standard in saying “you want it to be voluntary for the citizen and not for the officers.” At this point, Rodriguez spoke up, reiterating that the position of the subcommittee was that mediation be voluntary, given that studies show “that when it’s voluntary, then there’s more of a meaningful outcome.”
— On the recommendation that anonymity be granted to some complainants, Cobb said: “There’s some concerns, I will flat out say. An anonymous complaint does scare me to some degree, and we might run into some conflict with the police officer bill of rights. Recognize our criminal-justice system is founded upon the idea that the person who files an accusation has the right to face his accuser. We’d be taking that away from the police officer.”
Asked whether he could expand on the part about the officer bill of rights, Cobb said he’d rather not because he is “not an expert” in that area since it might present a legal issue.
That prompted an audience member to shout “You’re the chief of police” at Cobb, who was visibly taken aback by the comment.
— On allowing more complaint filing locations, Cobb’s only reservation was that it’s been tried before and with the advent of the internet, was done away with in favor of an online filing process.
'I want parity'
Emily Klose, one of the audience members, said she felt Cobb was “unprepared for the meeting.”
“My takeaway from the meeting is that the CPD enjoys its autonomy and will resist attempts by citizens to be involved in the investigation and review of their complaints,” Klose said. “I want parity. I want a system that works for both citizens and police officers.
“An investigation into allegations set forth in a citizen complaint should be a search for the truth. The CPD has a system that protects police officers from the consequences of their bad behavior.”
Rodriguez, meanwhile, called Monday’s meeting a “step forward.”
“Stakeholders are now in agreement that we can and must improve the police complaint process,” she said. “I know Chief Cobb is enthusiastic about the mission of the CRS. Under his leadership, I’m confident CPD officers will welcome the improvements as an investment in their professional development and in the communities they serve.”