Police move to improve relations with black communities in Champaign, Urbana

Pam G. Dempsey /  CU-CitizenAccess.org and  Jeff Kelly Lowenstein / Hoy — The barber shop in Pirtle’s Mini-Mall on Fourth Street is the kind of place a black youth can easily walk  into and ask for a dollar to buy an ice cream a few doors down  at the busy convenience store. 

Known as the “The Whip,”  the shop opened in the late 1990s in a largely black part of Champaign. Over the years it has become a kind of de-facto community center for the neighborhood.

 “It’s like a home away from  home,” said 34-year-old Marchond Hillsman, a barber there who describes himself as a jack-of-all-trades — whether as a counselor to youths or as a guy who can tell you where to find a good electrician or plumber. 

Hillsman knows the black  youths in the neighborhood  well, but he  said most of the kids don’t know local police officers – and many of them fear the police. 

“Anybody, any child should be able to come to a police officer and get help and feel like they can get help and kids don’t  feel that around here,”  he said. 

Several black youths in Champaign confirmed that observation in interviews.

 City officials and police in Champaign  and in Urbana acknowledge that they are facing a deep challenge in fixing community police relations.

 But they say they are aggressively addressing the problems and are heavily emphasizing community outreach after public confrontations between police and black youths, including the fatal shooting of a black youth by police in 2009. 

“The Champaign Police Department recognizes that the relationship between race and crime has been a controversial topic for over many years in the United States,” said Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb in a statement for this story. “Therefore,  the Champaign Community would not be immune to such controversy.”

 In a public meeting earlier this year, Chief Patrick Connolly of Urbana and Cobb, who is black and served on the Urbana police force, said that they have continued or implemented programs to better connect with the community. 


Changes for  improvements  in relations 


In Urbana, police officers now have fixed beat assignments instead of rotating through beats, Connolly said.

Further, there is a police bike program that gets officers out of the car and into neighborhoods more. Urbana police have worked to revitalize neighborhood watch programs that have grown from two dormant committees to 18 active groups as of  May, Connolly said. 


“I’m talking about the police and the community actually working together and trying to identify problems in their geographic locations and then working on solutions to solve those problems,” Connolly said in May. 

In Champaign, Cobb is moving toward an “intelligent lead  policing practice”  that integrates many policing strategies, such as community policing and data and crime analysis to help officers drill down to find patterns  and crime trends to  better solve issues.

They also have officers trying  to reach youths in and out of school, such as going to the neighborhood groups or visiting the Boys and Girls Club. “We’re taking positive steps by partnering with the Champaign  Community Coalition and  continuing our extensive range of outreach activities (over 150  per year), neighborhood walks, and other activities to support our goal to improve police-community  relations,” Cobb stated. 

Connolly declined comment  for this article. 

Tracy Parsons, director of Access Initiative, a non-profit organization that seeks to help Champaign  County youth improve their lives, has been involved with community and police issues for more than a decade.  He said the history of police relations with the black community needs to be recognized as a source of anger and frustration among many in the black community.

“The history is factual and can’t be dismissed that easily,”  Parsons said. 


Data reveal  deep disparities 


Indeed, crime data shows that  blacks have been consistently arrested at a large disproportionate rate.  In 2010, black people made up 16 percent of the population in Champaign and Urbana, according  to the 2010 U.S. Census. 

But from 2007 to 2011, blacks  accounted for at least 40 percent  of all arrests or citations issued  in Champaign and Urbana, according  to a Hoy/CU-CitizenAccess.org analysis of the cities’ crime data. These percentages have remained  relatively steady at the  same time that overall arrests  dropped in both cities, the analysis found.

In Champaign the  number of arrests dipped from  19,150 in 2007 to 14,095 in 2011,  while in Urbana the total number  of arrests and citations fell from  7,146 in 2007 to 5,952 in 2011.  The percentages of blacks in Champaign hovered in the 41 percent to 44 percent range over that time period.

In Urbana, the percentages of blacks actually increased from 40 percent to 49 percent from 2008 to 2011. This pattern of arrests also has contributed to a disproportionate number of blacks in the county jail on any one day.

For example, 62 percent of the inmates in the Champaign County jail in early September were  black, according to information  from its Web site. 

“People like to break it down like it’s two different situations,” said the Rev. Zernial Bogan, assistant  pastor at Champaign’s Salem Baptist Church and president of the Black Chamber of Commerce for Champaign  County. “It’s really one situation.  It’s Chambana.“ 

Delores Jones-Brown, professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice  in New York, said the data in Champaign and Urbana are consistent with national trends. The criminality of black people has been accepted, she said,  with people of all races comes to  see black and Latino people as  the crime problem. 

“The kinds of things you see happening to black people in Champaign and Urbana are happening to black people across the country,” she said. 

Cobb stated that it would be injudicious of him to comment on or analyze the contributions factors that lead to local disparities in arrest data prior to his appointment  as chief. 

“There are a number of external factors, beyond police control, that some believe may contribute to this disparity. This is not just a local issue,” Cobb  stated. “Some research indicates that many communities throughout the United States  have similar disparities and there are a number of studies conducted that have examined  this issue more closely.” 

While opinions differed about the causes of the disparities, everyone agrees that they need to be addressed. 

Parsons of Access Initiative praised what he said were higher levels of transparency by Cobb and the Champaign department and greater levels of communication between the department and  the community around investigative processes and “hot spots” of criminal activity. 


Changing  relationships 


The relationships between the  black communities and the cities and attempts to improve those relationships have remained difficult  over the past decade.  In 2002, a judge ordered the  Champaign school district to  improve education equity for its black students after several black  families complained some years  earlier of disparities between  black and white students in special  education, discipline and  gifted and honors programs. 

The consent decree ended in  2009, but school demographic  data showed a precipitous drop in the number of white students from the school district over the  past 10 years. 

In the same year the consent  decree ended, Champaign police  shot and killed an unarmed  15-year-old black youth named  Kiwane Carrington.  The incident elevated the concerns over police relationships  with the black community and public outcry and discussion  from the shooting prompted  city officials in both Urbana  and Champaign to more closely  examine relationships with the  black community.

However, the Carrington  shooting was followed by other  high-profile incidents in Champaign  involving black youth  and the police. The videotaped  arrest, pepper spraying and  alleged mistreatment in June  2011 of then 19-year-old Brandon  Ward again sparked strong  community reaction. 

Rod Brunson, professor at  the School of Criminal Justice  at Rutgers University, said that  change can be a lengthy process,  and is one that requires  leadership from the top that is  carried out at the street level. 

“Culture is slow to change,”  Brunson said. “It has to be enforced  is the most basic and  routine interactions that people have with citizens.” 

In the Champaign Police Department,  there’s been a “considerable  amount of turnover in  management,” Cobb stated.  “I am committed to ensuring  that bias-based policing is not  practiced within the Champaign  Police Department,” he stated.  “…Our management team is  equality committed to providing  quality of service to all members  of our community.”

 Champaign Mayor Don Gerard  said good changes are happening.  “I’m proud to say we’re at a  time where we’re really turning against that tide and letting  [everyone know], we’re the community  – doesn’t matter what  race you are, what economic status you are, that we are all the community and we’re all in this  together and we all need to work  together,” Gerard said. 

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing declined to comment for this article, but a review of minutes of the city’s Human Relations Commission shows Urbana has  been making strong efforts at  improved race relations. 

Both Parsons and Bogan  voiced their support for Cobb  and Connolly’s commitment to  making that change happen.

 “I’m very supportive of Chief  Cobb and Chief Connolly,” Parsons  said. “Both of them are  very interested in making sure  that they’re policing in an effective  and non-biased way.” 

For his part, Parsons said  that the history of the black  community and the police requires  continued vigilance.  “You have to keep the pressure  on,” he said. 

Gerard said Cobb has made  an “unprecedented amount of  changes” among the police force. 

“I think unfortunately, you  just can’t snap your fingers say,  ‘don’t be afraid of the police,  kids’,” Gerard said. “I think Chief  Cobb is making huge strides to  make sure the officers have the  opportunity to regain that trust.”  

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