Anthony Cobb’s last day as chief of the Champaign Police Department is Aug. 6. As an African American, that day fills me with dread.
Neither I nor the organizations with which I’ve been affiliated have always been in the same paragraph as Cobb. However, we have always been on the same page. This distinction may be confusing. The difference is subtle but registers significant agreement as well as profound disagreements.
To understand why I fear policing post-Cobb and the commonalities and conflicts between us, I need to discuss the political contexts in which he became chief and resigned.
Cobb’s appointment was the product of a 27-month struggle. That struggle began on Oct. 9, 2009, after then-Chief Robert T. Finney and Officer Daniel Norbits killed 15-year-old, 5-foot, 2-inch, 120-pound Kiwane Carrington.
According to 15-year-old, 5-foot, 4-inch, 140-pound Jeshaun C. Manning-Carter, who was with Carrington, Finney and Norbits “charged them” with their guns aimed, yelling and swearing, and “ordered them to get on the ground.”
The autopsy concluded the fatal shot came from a “downwards trajectory” and “without evidence of close-range firing.” Norbits’
Glock 21 had safety measures that only deactivated when the trigger was pulled.
The investigation found the weapon in “proper working condition.” Neither Finney nor Norbits claimed that
Mr. Carrington reached for the gun.
The forensic evidence supports Finney’s statement that Mr. Carrington was “still” and “sitting” when shot.
Norbits took excessive advantage of 50 ILCS 725, the Uniform Peace Officers’ Disciplinary Act or so-called “police officer’s bill of rights.”
Despite being interviewed four days after the fatal shooting, Norbits told the investigators, “Um, I remember trying to get him down on the ground, er, yeah, and the gun goes off.”
CU’s African American and social-justice communities immediately demanded transparency, accountability and justice. Illinois’ statute on involuntary manslaughter, 720 ILCS 5/9-3, describes it as the unintentional but reckless killing of a person. Section 5/4-6 defines “recklessness” as “gross deviation” from the standard a reasonable person would exercise in a similar circumstance.
Although Norbits admitted being trained to keep his finger off the trigger, Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz declined to charge him with involuntary manslaughter.
Few in the African American and social-justice communities believed justice occurred.
Mr. Carrington’s killing was the most atrocious example of police misconduct during Finney’s reign, 2003-11. Crimes of control, criminal acts committed by police to maintain anti-Black racial oppression, characterized the Champaign police culture under Finney. Black people suffered “disparate surveillance, arrests, misconduct, and use of excessive force” under his abusive rule.
From 2007-11, there were 34,597 arrests of Black people, or 42 percent of all arrestees. However, Black folk constituted only 16 percent of the city’s population during that period. Furthermore, that figure is more than double the number of Black residents during those years.
Led by CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, a multiracial social-justice organization, and the Breakfast Club, a multiclass, all-male Black liberation organization, the Black community sought justice for Mr. Carrington.
Finney resigned in the face of demonstrations, Black political mobilization and raucous city council meetings.
In the same period, City Manager Steve Carter, who enabled Finney’s reign of terror, retired, and Mayor Jerry Schweighart, a Tea Party member and birther, was defeated in the April 2011 election.
Cobb was by far the most accomplished and best qualified candidate.
The Breakfast Club suspected the council leaned toward a Finney clone.
Thus, we informed the new mayor, Don Gerard, and members of the council that unless Cobb was appointed, they should expect continued disruption of council meetings and more militant mobilizations throughout the city. On Jan. 27, 2012, Cobb became chief.
In contrast to Finney’s “warrior” approach, Cobb worked to shift the department’s culture toward the “guardian” model.
A warrior culture favors militarization and racial-profiling tactics such as “stop and frisk” and aggressively targets minor offensives such as jaywalking and loitering. The guardian framework respects civil liberties and emphasizes de-escalation training, social service, partnerships and positive contacts with citizens.
Cobb supported community demands for body cameras; tightened use-of-force policies; initiated reviews of all use-of-force incidents; added civilians to the use-of-force review committee; implemented citizen review of complaints; and adopted both Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” policies and the “shared Principles” agreement between the Illinois
Association of Chiefs of Police and the NAACP.
We strongly disagreed on the adoption of Tasers and the citizen review board. Though the board acquired subpoena power, the process was driven by the police, and the chief retained ultimate decision-making authority.
Since Cobb implemented these liberal reforms, the social context has shifted decidedly rightward.
Responding to the protests over the murder of George Floyd, an all-White, far-right movement has emerged in the county during the last year. Few reside in the “twin cities.” Most live in the majority-White towns surrounding Champaign-Urbana.
They slyly advocate more resources for under-
resourced C-U neighborhoods and use a simplistic, arch-conservative Black woman to front their reactionary movement while simultaneously supporting Donald Trump’s initiatives to hire more police and deploy unrestrained warrior-style tactics.
The right-wing movement skillfully uses the unfortunate murder of Officer Chris Oberheim to push a repressive agenda. To paraphrase Cobb, cities cannot arrest their way out of the current crisis. Hiring Finney as interim chief and returning Champaign police to a warrior mentality will only worsen the situation.