CHAMPAIGN — Ten years after 15-year old Kiwane Carrington was killed by a Champaign police officer in what officials ruled an accidental shooting, questions are being raised about whether there’s a better way to evaluate citizen complaints against the department.
Asking them: members of a five-person citizen review board — the Citizen Review Subcommittee — which was created in 2017 and charged with reviewing the police department’s investigations into complaints filed against it.
Two years into observing and partaking in that process, subcommittee members identified four aspects they believed could make it more fair — such as removing the 30-day window for citizens to file a complaint — and offered solutions for police Chief Anthony Cobb to consider in late May.
But four-plus months later, Cobb told News-Gazette Media, he still “hasn’t gotten to specifics” of the group’s proposals.
“We’re still exploring and digesting the recommendations,” Cobb said. “There’s a lot that has to go into this as we dissect and look at it. We’re still doing our due diligence.”
As the wait continues, the role of the citizen review subcommittee has been called into question, with city council member Clarissa Fourman stating: “We put them together because they’re supposed to be the process, not to tell the chief how to handle complaints.”
And there are other road blocks to implementing the subcommittee’s recommendations, including the likely need to bargain with Champaign’s police union before any proposed changes are seriously considered and the chief seeking “a level playing field” between citizens and his officers.
The subcommittee’s four recommendations, which Cobb heard in person during an August appearance before the group, include:
— Eliminating the time limit for citizens to file a complaint.
— Folding mediation opportunities into the complaint hearing process. As things stand now, mediation is a rarely requested option.
— Creating an anonymous filing option and adding more 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.
For her part, subcommittee Chairwoman Emily Rodriguez said she and other members have “always understood that implementing these recommendations would be a collaborative effort” and expects the process to be “as valuable to the mission of the CRS as the recommendations themselves.”
Protections for police
Long before any changes are even considered, the Fraternal Order of Police — the union responsible for bargaining on behalf of officers with the city — would get a significant say.
That’s not a “road block” to change, Rodriguez said, but rather an “obvious and necessary next step” that allows police to have “a voice in a conversation about their working conditions.”
Before police can change any piece of the process, the city’s legal department and the union would first need to determine whether it violates state statutes or elements of existing collective-bargaining agreements.
“There’s a lot that we can’t do without bargaining or running afoul of the statute,” said Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Bannon, who handles labor agreements for the city.
Many of the protections officers have under state law don’t bode well for the subcommittee’s four-pronged plan to reform the complaint process.
Illinois’ Uniform Peace Officers’ Disciplinary Act — known colloquially as the “police bill of rights” — guarantees the following, among other protections:
— The officer must be informed of the names of all complainants if an administrative proceeding is instituted.
— The officer has the right to remain silent if the interrogation “may be used as evidence of misconduct or as a basis for charges seeking suspension, removal or discharge.”
— Anyone filing a complaint must do so through a sworn affidavit.
— Admissions or confessions made during the course of an investigation that does not follow the specific guidelines of the act “may not be utilized in any subsequent disciplinary proceeding against the officer.”
Sworn affidavits requiring signatures and identification — as well as the protection that an officer be informed of the complainant’s name — are in clear conflict with the subcommittee’s recommendation to have an anonymous filing option.
And folding mediation into the process is not likely to yield desired results if the officer is not inclined to speak to the charges brought against them, especially given their right to counsel and the presence of a union representative.
Bannon said the mediation recommendation could trigger a new bargaining negotiation between the city and the union.
“I would imagine the union would say that if it’s something that is a condition of our employment, then it’s something we’re required to go over again,” she said.
No matter how the subcommittee’s negotiation with the police department goes, Bannon said there might still be a possibility that the union asks for a bargaining session.
“They’re the third party involved,” she said.
Study session unlikely
When asked by News-Gazette Media whether the city council ought to devote a study session to the subcommittee’s recommendations, most members were apprehensive.
Four — Alicia Beck, Angie Brix, Matt Gladney and Vanna Pianfetti — said they needed to wait for more information before signing up.
Three others — Fourman, Tom Bruno and Greg Stock — said they wouldn’t support a study session, leaving Will Kyles as the lone council member who would.
Among Fourman’s issues with the group’s recommendations is the elimination of a time limit on filing a complaint.
That, she said, “is not going to work in the citizen’s best interest,” given that body-camera footage is deleted after 90 days, unless it’s flagged.
Bruno questioned whether any of the proposed policy changes were necessary.
“Do we need to rewrite it?” Bruno said. “To whom does it feel outdated? I never mind talking about things, but (what’s in place) is a good process, and I’m not ready to turn it on its head.”
According to the ordinance that established the subcommittee, it has a role in promoting “thoughtful policy recommendations and ongoing outreach” in addition to its duties as an “unbiased review board.”
But like Fourman, Stock questions whether the subcommittee is overstepping its bounds.
Furthermore, he said he didn’t want to take up the issue in a study-session setting unless other council members were willing to make changes.
“If there’s not enough movement to make those broad changes, then I don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it,” Stock said.
“Their job was more to examine complaints and not policies. That’s much broader than what our intention was” when council members voted to create the subcommittee after years of on-and-off discussions about it.
Subcommittee head: 'Hard at work'
Rodriguez has asked city staff to communicate with Cobb about when the subcommittee might expect formal feedback on its recommendations.
No date has been set for when that might happen, police spokesman Tom Yelich said.
Though Cobb acknowledges that his office has the last call on policy changes in the department, he warns against the notion that he is all powerful.
Among others, the union would likely need to be involved in any related future dialogue as Cobb prepares to make a final decision, the chief said.
“A lot of people think that because I’m the chief of police that I can just snap my fingers and make things happen or make these changes,” Cobb said. “Recognize there’s an effect to everything we do.”
In the meantime, Rodriguez said, “we will continue to hold public meetings, review complaints and listen to residents. ... That’s our job, and we’re hard at work.”