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Urbana residents want to divert calls from police while a consultant recommends hiring more officers

Urbana Police Chief Larry Boone and Deputy Chief of Police Rich Surles present a proposal to hire four additional police officer positions at the Urbana City Council’s Dec. 4 meeting.

The national consultant hired by the city of Urbana has released its first report evaluating the police department. In this report, BerryDunn, a national consulting firm, recommends hiring more police officers, which would cost the city millions and involve raising taxes. 

According to the report, more than 64% of calls for service don’t involve criminal activity. Those calls, activists argue, don’t need a police response. Instead, many residents want Urbana officials to establish alternative responses for these calls, involving domestic violence experts, social workers and mental health professionals.

“That seems like a huge opportunity,” Urbana resident Jane McClintock said. “If we could investigate what kind of alternative response we want, then we would have [a] more informed understanding of how much traditional law enforcement is necessary.”

In December of last year, Urbana Police Chief Larry Boone asked the Urbana City Council to amend the budget to hire four additional police officers. The Council deferred the decision until BerryDunn, the consultant, released the staffing report.

That request was part of Chief Boone’s larger plan to hire 15 additional officers — just two officers shy of BerryDunn’s recommendation in the new report. 

“I feel that the game is rigged and you’ve already made your decision on how many staff,” Evans said at a BerryDunn consultant meeting in November of 2023. 

BerryDunn has yet to release its reports on alternative responses. The release of the staffing report before the other reports are ready has confounded activists and elected officials who want the city of Urbana to consider how it could reimagine public safety responses and models.

“It’s long overdue [that] we create a Community Service Responder unit to alleviate the police workload,” Urbana City Council member Christopher Evans wrote in an email. “We have been using the police department as our babysitter for far too long.”

Having all the consultants’ reports is essential before making consequential decisions, Evans said, because city officials like him would have to approve any changes to the budget to allot funding for more staffing. That funding could be used instead to fund social services to prevent crime from happening in the first place — which activists argue could eliminate the need for more police staff. 

“Our first reaction will be to wait,” Evans wrote. “There are three more reports from BerryDunn still due.”

McClintock has helped host public safety forums at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center to give residents a space to imagine what the future of public safety in Urbana could look like. Releasing the staffing report before the alternative response report doesn’t allow for any of these ideas to become a reality, McClintock said. 

At an Urbana City Council meeting on March 25, BerryDunn law enforcement consultant Michele Weinzetl presented the results of the staffing study. When Urbana City Council member Grace Wilken questioned Weinzetl about releasing the staffing report before the alternative responder report, she argued the staffing report had to come first because UPD officers are struggling with their workloads. 

“There’s a current need, and we would argue a pressing need, to add additional staff to balance current workloads,” Weinzetl said in response. 

Illinois Public Media and Invisible Institute asked BerryDunn whether the recommendations in the current report would make it more difficult to implement alternative models in the future. In response, BerryDunn consultants said the staffing report was the appropriate starting point. 

“We felt it was important to understand current conditions as a starting point for any alternatives,” BerryDunn consultants wrote in an emailed statement. “The City decided to release the finished product because the Public Safety Review is part of an ongoing conversation. As you know, it is a lengthy document.” 

“We wanted to be sure that people had adequate time to digest that information and ask questions about it before advancing the conversation further with the alternatives response,” the consultants’ statement continued. “In other words, there was no reason not to share it once it was complete.”

The staffing report also recommends that UPD explore other changes, including the addition of modern technology like less-lethal force options, automated license plate readers, driver’s license scanners, and cameras, in addition to implementing a process to receive, log, and track all complaints in a consistent and usable manner. The report also suggests that UPD revise its policy about internal investigations. 

The BerryDunn consultants confirmed that the Urbana Police Department will consider implementing these other recommendations in the BerryDunn staffing report. But whether that happens, they wrote, will depend on Mayor Diane Marlin’s budget — which will be unveiled in the coming months. 

Urbana is still waiting for upcoming consultant reports

Many local conversations about the future of policing have hinged on residents’ desires to divert calls to experts, social workers and outreach workers instead of police officers. At a meeting hosted by BerryDunn in November 2023 to gather community input on potential alternatives, both residents and BerryDunn consultants agreed police might not be the best responders for many types of calls. 

“We’re coming to understand that police departments may have taken on responsibilities that aren’t necessarily best suited for police response,” BerryDunn’s Michele Weinzetl said. “In some cases, it may be that the police shouldn’t go to it at all.” 

Cities throughout the U.S. have implemented alternative response models — which include sending mental health professionals to crisis intervention calls, domestic violence experts to domestic disturbance calls and social workers to calls where people may need help accessing community services. 

Many presentations at the public safety forums have focused on who could respond to calls that don’t involve any crime. Often, those calls involve people who are experiencing a mental health crisis, dealing with substance use issues or need housing or other types of social services. 

“Why is law enforcement in a space where the law doesn’t have to be enforced?” said Gus Wood, Independent Media Center president and University of Illinois labor and history professor. “Even [police officers] themselves will tell you, and many who have left the profession will say, ‘I didn’t like going to those types of calls because I was afraid that I was going to hurt someone or somebody was gonna hurt me.’” 

The BerryDunn staffing report recommends hiring 7 more sworn officers and 6 non-sworn officers — a move that would likely cost the city over $1 million annually. 

Danielle Chynoweth, the supervisor of Cunningham Township which helps provide services for unhoused people, said the city should not hire more police when the report shows that most calls to UPD are non-criminal. 

“What I’m hearing is that we should spend $1.5 to $2 million on more police personnel, and hope that community groups pick up the slack with the alternative responder model,” Chynoweth said. “That is not an appropriate use of public dollars.” 

City officials control the budget

At the meeting where Chief Boone requested funds to hire four additional officers, Urbana resident and Civilian Police Review Board member Peggy Patten said it was irresponsible for the city to make decisions about staffing without the report from the consultant. 

“Given the investment we made in BerryDunn’s consultant services, it seems hasty to me to request additional police staff before we know the outcome of BerryDunn’s detailed analysis,” Patten said during public comment. 

The majority of residents who spoke during the nearly two-hour public comment period said they want to see less money spent on policing and find new ways to address the issues residents are dealing with. Urbana City Council member Christopher Evans, who voted to defer Chief Boone’s proposal, said the consultant’s recommendations will cost a significant amount of money. 

The estimated $1 million cost will likely come from an increase in the city of Urbana’s taxes, according to a financial forecast at the Dec. 11 Urbana City Council Meeting. That’s why Evans urges Urbana residents to voice their opinions on those anticipated tax hikes.

“Whatever plans get made to improve our police and fire departments, it is going to cost money,” Evans wrote. “The Urbana City Council will be asked by Urbana’s Finance Department to raise revenue. Now would be a good time for the residents of Urbana to let your council representatives know how you feel about your taxes getting raised.”

Farrah Anderson is an investigative reporting fellow with the Invisible Institute and Illinois Public Media and a journalism student at the University of Illinois. Follow her on Twitter @farrahsoa.

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At the IPM Student Newsroom, journalism students from the U of I's College of Media work alongside professional journalists -- public radio reporters, editors and producers -- to produce multimedia stories on issues affecting east-central Illinois. Follow us on Instagram: @illinoisstudentnewsroom

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