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The pilot program is designed to free police from dealing with some issues and to reinforce neighborhood stability.

Champaign city officials have proposed a 34-month pilot program, using federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, to train and hire neighborhood ambassadors to help address safety issues at the neighborhood level.

The proposal, which could be voted on later this fall and enacted beginning next spring, is a valid use of ARPA funds, which are supposed to be directed to issues and needs affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently released FBI data show that violent crime has increased in Champaign over the last two years. And Champaign police have reported an alarming increase in shooting incidents and gunshot victims over the last two years. There were 100 confirmed shooting incidents in the city in 2019 but 189 last year and already about 200 this year. The number of shooting victims also is trending to almost double the number, 34, reported in 2019.

Clearly, the pandemic has had an impact on violent crime, both in Champaign and nationwide.

The city hopes that the ambassadors — four people working in neighborhoods throughout the city, plus a supervisor — can engage community residents, provide information about social services, promote public safety and supplement the understaffed and overworked police staff.

The program is modeled after other community and neighborhood programs in Evanston, Chicago, San Francisco and even the student patrol program that has operated at the University of Illinois for more than two decades.

Based on the proposal, the city is expecting a lot from the ambassadors: two-person shifts who would cover the city from 1 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Saturday, and serving as ambassadors at events, meetings and large gatherings like high school games. They’d also be of service to the homeless and would be trained in de-escalation and intervention techniques for other trying circumstances, including large and disruptive crowds. The program is estimated to cost about $416,000 annually, including salary, health insurance and pension benefits.

The neighborhood ambassador program isn’t the only idea the Champaign city government is assessing for addressing crime and other community concerns. Others will look at alternative approaches to addressing mental-health emergencies, violence interrupter/mentoring models and possibly using other city staff to address municipal ordinance violations and other community safety issues.

The city may be asking a lot of these ambassadors, but perhaps there are energetic, gifted people in the community willing to do the work for what is now a short-term program with a Dec. 31, 2024, end date. There’s no doubt the need is great.

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