C-U considers police review

By Emily Sokolik

In July 2005, Kurt Hjort was accused of raping a woman in her apartment. Hjort was an on-duty police officer in Urbana at the time. Shortly after, he resigned from the police force and the city paid the woman a $100,000 insurance deductible to settle a lawsuit she brought against the city.

Incidents like the Hjort case are rare in both Urbana and Champaign, but Ricky Baldwin, member of the Champaign County Coalition for Police Review, said the community is in need of a citizen review board that will independently monitor the police force.

“There is a democratic principle involved,” he said. “Even if there were no incidents, police still need oversight. They have a very broad authority, they’re armed, they can arrest people and put people in jail. It’s very important that they do everything right and that they have the trust of the community.”

Complaints against police officers in Champaign and Urbana are currently handled internally. The police department is the only body that investigates officer misconduct, including prisoner torture with Tasers or death at the hands of the police, Baldwin said.

A review board would be composed of an impartial body of citizens that monitor complaints and examine police policy.

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“Nobody gets to review themselves,” Baldwin said. “If you’re audited by the IRS, they don’t just say, ‘check out your financial records and let us know if there are any improprieties.’ No, they come and check themselves.”

However, Baldwin said police unions have historically been against advisory committees.

The role of a citizen review board varies depending on the community. Cities like Springfield and Chicago have established review boards, though they are relatively uncommon in Illinois. In Oak Park, a Chicago suburb, complaints against police officers are brought to the Citizen’s Police Oversight Commission, a group of residents who review citizen complaints against individual officers, according to the Village of Oak Park’s Web site. The chief of police makes the final decision regarding disciplinary action, but the commission reviews the decisions the chief makes on a quarterly basis or when a complaint is appealed.

Currently, thousands of different police review boards exist throughout the country, Baldwin said.

“It is obvious that what works for one city or one police department doesn’t necessarily work for the other,” said Mike Bily, Urbana chief of police.

Urbana plans to implement a citizen review board later this year, with the issue being on the Urbana City Council agenda for either late February or early March, Bily said.

Laurel Prussing, Urbana mayor, established a task force in November 2005 to explore various models for a local review board. Baldwin said the former mayor, Tod Satterthwaite, was resistant to the idea of establishing a review board in Urbana.

“We got a lot of strong, negative remarks,” he said.

Specific points of the review board are still in the negotiation process. The Urbana City Council, along with the mayor, will eventually appoint between five and seven local residents to serve on the board.

Establishing an effective review board can be complicated, Bily said, because both the community and the police officers need to be satisfied with the final outcome.

“I think a citizen review board can be a good thing if done correctly,” he said. “The trick is to strike that delicate balance where both sides think they’re getting something out of the process.”

The Division of Public Safety at the University has implemented an alternative to the citizen review board. A public safety advisory committee was established in 1998 to ensure that the University Police Department is responsive to the needs of the campus and the local community.

“We know that our system is very effective,” said Jeff Christensen, assistant chief of police for the University. “But, then again, you need to be responsive to your community. … There is nothing more important than the accountability of the police to the community.”