Urbana seeks solutions to profiling

By Joe Parrino

The naming of a task force on citizen police review and a police department report on traffic stops put the subject of racial profiling at the center of Urbana City Council discussions Monday evening.

Urbana Mayor Laurel Lunt Prussing announced the members of a new task force who will investigate the need for a permanent oversight board to handle citizen complaints about police conduct.

In recent years, accusations of racial profiling made against both the Urbana and Champaign police departments strained relations between some neighborhoods and the officers that patrolled them. Last fall, a community organization called C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice filmed a documentary, which showed encounters between local police and black residents.

The key issue for the committee to tackle is how to insure an impartial hearing for claims of racial profiling and other mistreatments, Prussing said.

“No one should be auditing themselves,” she said.

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Historically, the Urbana police department has responded to a citizen’s complaint with its own investigation.

The panel includes representatives from the Urbana police department as well as eight community leaders. The task force has until January to make its recommendations to the council on the powers and procedures of citizen review.

According to council members, Urbana could become the smallest city to form a citizen police review board. The task force will look to cities such as Minneapolis and Iowa City, which have had boards in place as far back as 1990, Prussing said.

“We want a solution that everyone can see as already working well,” Prussing said.

Urbana police chiefs Eddie Adair and Mike Bily were in attendance to deliver a report that broke down traffic stops in 2004 by race, age and gender.

Bily walked the council through data, which showed that African American drivers account for nearly 35 percent of the stops while Caucasian drivers account for about 55 percent. The report estimates that African Americans make up about 12 percent of Urbana’s driving population, and Caucasians, 67 percent.

“While this is not proof of racial profiling, these numbers are certainly reason for further discussion,” Bily said.

The report selected for race in such stop categories as speeding, license and equipment violations and consent searches. The police department was also analyzed by the beat or patrol sector in which the stop occurred. The two beats that cover neighborhoods with the higher percentages of African American residents had the most traffic stops.

Bily pointed out that such beats also get more calls for service from residents of those neighborhoods. Because police officers are distributed to beats according to the frequency of calls the department gets from the area, the probability of traffic stops within those beats is significantly higher.

Bily and Adair submitted a list of recommendations to improve its record keeping, training of new police officers and complaint procedures. Among the proposals was a public meeting every first Thursday of the month in which citizens could engage in direct dialogue with members of the Urbana police department.

Councilman Brandon Bowersox said he planned to attend the first such meeting scheduled for Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. Councilman Dennis Roberts also suggested that videos of traffic stops be used by police department supervisors in officer performance evaluations and training procedures.

Although she was impressed with the effort the police department demonstrated in compiling the statistics, Councilwoman Danielle Chynoweth said she felt recommendations for action needed to be more ambitious.

“The complaint process is inadequate,” Chynoweth said. “The task force should come up with a very professional procedure so that every grievance gets its due.”

Councilman Charlie Smyth, who is also a statistician at the University, said the numbers in the report might be flawed.

“There is no accounting for repeat offenders in this study,” Smyth said. “It is also hard to reconcile some of the data sets.”

Smyth was confident about the future outcome of the cooperation between the police department and the City Council. He was especially pleased with the newly appointed task force.

“It’s an all-star cast,” Smyth said. “They should come up with something really good.”