Champaign still healing after shooting

Two years ago this month, 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington was fatally shot by a Champaign Police officer. The shooting was later ruled an accident, but the implications of the decision and how it was handled weakened the relationship between Champaign residents and city officials. However, that tarnished relationship is slowly recovering.

It hasn’t been easy restoring that trust, said Champaign councilman Will Kyles, District 1. The African-American community has slowly taken “baby steps” in the healing process. The police department’s relationship with residents wasn’t great prior to the shooting, he added.

Budget constraints were one issue that Kyles said lessened police presence in neighborhoods. Because of this, some communities felt they were being ignored.

The events that followed the shooting only added to the growing tension among Champaign residents, particularly the African-American community. Patricia Avery, executive director of the juvenile delinquency prevention organization of the Champaign-Urbana Area Project, said concerned parents came in fearing the treatment of their children.

She said there was a growing belief that the police were using their use of force policy to their advantage. Avery and the Champaign-Urbana Area Project have been asking Champaign police to fix the policy for years.

She said it didn’t help that former Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart was not very accessible. She said Schweighart, who held the position for 12 years, was seen as patronizing by many in the African-American community, and his language had offended some. Avery said the African-American community felt disconnected from Champaign.

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said Schweighart’s lack of leadership in the aftermath of the shooting did not sit well with him.

“My main problem was how he responded and reacted to the situation with the community,” Gerard said.

Avery said she believes Gerard has done a better job at being accessible and promoting greater city outreach with the entire community. She said he is the “exact opposite” of Schweighart.

“He has genuinely been in the community and lending a hand to the people,” Avery said. “He has already shown that he will be the mayor of all the people in Champaign.”

Gerard has talked to many within the police department, including Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney and other ranking officers and expressed his desire to gain more resident input. He said it is his duty as well as the police department’s to bridge the gap.

“I’ve tried to be engaged with both the community and those who serve it,” Gerard said. “If you sit back and judge on your own just what you think and what your experiences have been, it doesn’t work.”

Avery is a member of the new police chief advisory selection committee, a joint venture between the police and the city government. The committee will be looking into the hiring of the new Champaign police chief; current Chief of Police R.T. Finney announced in August that he would retire from his position in January.

Avery said programs such as the organization Champaign Community and Police Partnership, which was reintroduced in March, are helping improve community relations.

The Champaign Community and Police Partnership, as well as the advisory committee, are currently accepting and looking over applications in the nationwide search for the next chief of police. Community involvement in the process has become a healing process of its own in a city often reminded of the shooting of one of its youth, but Kyles said everything is not okay just yet.

“We are making efforts to improve relationships, including the city council,” Kyles said. “It’s grown, but it’s not enough. We’re not in a situation where we can say we’re better off than we were two or three years ago.”