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Urbana City Council Devotes Special Meeting To Police Concerns

A lineup of Urbana police cars.

The Urbana City Council spent more than three hours Thursday night looking over police issues with members of the community. But council members have put off a discussion of next steps until July.

The meeting, called by three city council members,  Jared Miller, Maryalice Wu and Dennis Roberts, featured comments by both community members and council members on issues ranging from allegations of excessive force in the April arrest of Aleyah Lewis, to the effectiveness of the city’s Civilian Police Review Board.

“I think that it’s really important that we hear all different kinds of voices to move this conversation forward,” said Ald. Wu at the start of the meeting. “We need to learn, both from the communities that are most affected. And we also need to learn from law enforcement to have real lasting change.”

Wu, Miller and Roberts had already compiled a list of public concerns about policing in Urbana. Many of those concerns involved the arrest of Lewis and the performance of the Civilian Police Review Board. The special meeting was to gather public comments on those and any other concerns, and provide an opportunity for dialogue between the public and council members.

Council members heard from the president of the Champaign County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Carol Spindel said they supported the Ten Shared Principles initiative which the Urbana City Council endorsed earlier in the week. She wanted the guidelines, agreed upon by the NAACP and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, to be applied to the Urbana Police Department in meaningful ways.

“We strongly support structural police reform in Urbana,” said Spindel. “We’re pleased to be part of this local dialog and the larger statewide one to re-imagine public safety, to make it more effective and more equitable.”

Others favored replacement over reform. Aidan Watson of the Graduate Employees Organization, the union representing graduate student employees at the University of Illinois Urbana campus, said his group favors defunding the police.

 “We are not interested in a community role in policing,” said Watson. “We are not interested in discussions about changing police culture, training techniques or policy. We are interested in abolishing policing, and building new systems that actually support people’s safety, health and well-being.”

Meghan McDonald added her voice in support of the dropping of aggravated battery charges against Aleyah Lewis, and also called on city council members to ask Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz to drop charges against the 26 people, mostly African-American, charged in connection with the May 31 looting and property damage incidents at the Marketplace shopping mall in Champaign. McDonald argued that the people arrested were not at the mall until hours after the looting happened.

“Say you stand in solidarity with them and that their lives matter, right now, after this meeting,” said McDonald. “If you think, oh, it’s not my place, you’re wrong. If you think Black Lives Matter, but don’t follow through with what I’m asking, you’re pretty hypocritical.”

Ald. Shirese Hursey, who is African-American, counseled patience for those seeking change in the culture that promotes racism in law enforcement. Citing her own experience of being threatened by a police officer in Los Angeles for trying to warn a neighbor their car was being towed, she said that culture was not built overnight, and dismantling it won’t be done overnight, either.

“Because this is a system change that we’ve been trying to make happen for over a hundred years, regarding black people,” said Hursey. “We’ve been marching, we’ve been dying, we’ve been lynched, we’ve been raped, we’ve been pulled over and money taken from us for years, for decades and yes, even for centuries. Our patience has been one for our survival.”

The only police officer on the Urbana City Council, said he came to the meeting to listen and learn. But Ald. (and Parkland College police chief) William Colbrook said he believed the public debate over police concerns involved one group of people speaking loudly, while others were silent, or making their views known privately. Colbrook said there’s are reasons why police do what they do. He questioned Ald. Bill Brown’s contention that the police use too much military-style weaponry. He also said a proposal from a group of Urbana High School students that Urbana look at police reform measures in Camden, New Jersey was not applicable. Colbrook said the Camden police department had been riddled with corruption, while the police in Urbana were not, despite questions raised by the Aleyah Lewis arrest.

“Urbana P.D. is a great agency,” said Colbrook, “but it’s an agency that I am certain is willing to take a hard, inward look at itself. Citizens have called for an independent review of the incident that occurred on April 10, and we’re going to have an independent review. I, along with others, will be eager to hear about their findings, once they’re completed. Further conversations will be prompted once the findings are delivered.”

Mayor Diane Marlin says she has hired Hillard Heintze, a consulting firm co-founded by former Chicago Police superintendent Terry Hillard,  (but now owned by Baltimore-based Jensen Hughes) to investigate the Lewis arrest.

Thursday’s special Urbana City Council meeting was supposed to wrap up with a discussion on what steps the council should take next to address public concerns about policing. But with the meeting going past 10 P.M., council members decided to move the discussion to the next Committee of the Whole meeting. That meeting is tentatively scheduled for Monday, July 6 at 7 P.M.

Picture of Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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