Protecting students, policing police

By Josh Rohrscheib

Champaign-Urbana is a community with three police forces, one for each city and one for our campus. A series of local controversies including suicides in jail, allegations of racial profiling and the arrest of local activists (who were investigating the police) have led many local groups to call for the creation of citizen police review boards.

A citizen police review board would be an impartial body of citizens that are independent from the police, who perform oversight functions, investigate complaints against police officers and suggest policy reform. Currently, all complaints against the Champaign and Urbana police are handled within the department.

A Student Senate report on racial profiling recommends police review boards for all three local police departments. There is a common perception that police are inclined to protect one another. Victims of profiling and police discrimination are more likely to feel they are treated fairly if their complaints are reviewed by a citizen review board. Citizen review boards give the community more confidence that complaints will be handled impartially.

Citizen review boards also offer advantages for the police. Often these boards can shield police from civil liability. Additionally, they impartially dispense frivolous complaints while avoiding any accusations police are covering up misconduct to “protect their own.” Perhaps most importantly, citizen boards increase the public trust in local police.

Unfortunately, there is little momentum towards creating a board for the Champaign police. However, Urbana is making real progress. In September, the Urbana City Council unanimously approved a task force to study creating a police review board. One of the most effective students I’ve ever met, Jen Walling, is on the task force. Jen told me that later this semester the taskforce will present a plan to the city counsel on how to implement a review board. For more information on these efforts visit: www.prairienet.org/cprb/.

The Student Senate is advocating for the creation of a University Police Complaint and Policy Review Board to ensure fairness in disputes between our students and the University Police. This board would give students, faculty and staff a voice in University policing.

Creating citizen police review boards is only part of the solution. The Student Senate and the student ACLU are launching the “Know Your Rights” campaign to protect students from police abuse. Student Affairs and Housing in particular have been extremely supportive of these efforts so far. Housing is distributing “Know Your Rights” door hangers to every room in the residence halls with information on what to do if the police want to search the room.

The campaign is also using bar cards with simple rules for students who encounter police while out drinking to keep a bad situation from getting much worse. Both the card and door hanger, along with other student rights information can be found at www.iss.uiuc.edu/rights along with other resources on students rights. Many of these resources are from Student Legal Services, which offers free legal advice to all students. The lawyers at Student Legal Services are dedicated advocates for students and you should keep them in mind if you are ever in trouble with the police or with the university.

Even if all three police forces eventually have police review boards, the most effective check on police abuse is a well informed citizenry. Know your rights. Protect yourself. And do your part to police the police.

UPDATE ON TEXTBOOK PRICES

Since Friday’s column there have been two major breakthroughs for students. First, State Representative Naomi Jakobsson is now sponsoring HB 4867, the Textbook Pricing and Access Act.

Second, I spoke with Professor Paul Kelter, the director of general chemistry. Beginning next fall, he promised to have bookstores also offer unbundled versions of Dr. Zumdahl’s chemistry text. Kelter is also considering working with the Student Senate to create a pilot program for textbook rental to save students more on textbooks.

Josh Rohrscheib is a third year law student, president of the Illinois Student Senate and a guest columnist. His column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at [email protected] or post your responses at www.rohrscheib.blogspot.com.