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Heartland Community College trustees vote to establish in-house public safety department

Heartland Community College sign
Flickr/Heartland Community College

Heartland Community College will employ its own security personnel after the board of trustees voted Tuesday night to establish a new public safety department.

The move ends a decades-long practice of outsourcing security work to contractors, a model one former official described as "not common among our peer institutions."

Addressing trustees Tuesday night, HCC president Keith Cornille said a survey completed late last year revealed that "students and employees have a lack of confidence in the contracted service that we currently have to prevent, detect and respond to incidents on campus."

"It's our opinion that moving to a college-employed public safety department will allow for consistency of staffing, something that has been hard to achieve through the current contracted services that we have," he said.

Associate director of public safety Steve Riesenberg told trustees that Allied Universal, the contractor most recently used by Heartland, had "just in the last period alone lost eight officers in 18 months." Some of those officers had been removed from the job "due to cause, meaning (they) were simply not performing the duties that they were supposed to be performing altogether."

The switch to an in-house security force comes with an increased cost of around $450,000, up to just over $1 million annually from a little over $700,000 currently.

"We are bringing in enough revenue to support the estimated cost change that would stem from this," said Vice President for Finance Letisha Trepac. "We're increasing both the quantity and quality of the staff that would be dedicated to providing this service ... I would like to offer that this is an investment in the service."

Part of the uptick in cost comes from adding more security staff than are currently employed: With the establishment of an in-house public safety department, the college would move from having 11 staffers to 17, including a director, three supervisors and 13 public safety officers. All officers would be trained in the basics of CPR, AED use, crisis intervention and de-escalation tactics, as well community-oriented policing methods and the incident command system for multi-agency cooperation.

While the trustees' vote signals an agreement with the proposed need for the move to internal security services, the board did not vote on whether there would be a sworn, police officer element to the staff, instead deferring that to a future meeting.

The proposed model for the public safety staffers would make the director and three supervisors sworn officers, meaning they would have the ability to carry weapons and arrest people. The other public safety officers would not have those same powers, which Riesenberg said would "maintain an outwardly, friendly and non-threatening appearance."

"Engagement would be a major role of the in-house public safety staff: All officers will provide a professional, welcoming disposition with a customer service focus for our students, employees and guests," he said. "What we would seek to create is an image for our students, our employees, guests of the college that when they walk away from campus, when they talk about public safety at Heartland, they say, 'Yes, Heartland public safety officers are sharp, they're engaged, they're welcoming, they're competent, and I trust them to resolve whatever issue comes our way. Be it a minor issue or a major emergency, we would seek to earn the trust of all of our community stakeholders.'"

He told trustees that adding sworn police officers to the ranks would give the college access to intelligence sources, including those from Bloomington-Normal police, the McLean County Sheriff's Office and the Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center, among others.

Mary Campbell, a trustee first elected to the board in 2017, said she believed the "model sounds well thought out," but added whoever is chosen to direct the department will be "pivotal."

"People who go into the corrections field, the criminal justice field, the policing field have a particular mindset, oftentimes, (and) you may not be able to get that out of them," she said. "That's not the mindset we want to have on campus. I think the person that's selected to be the administrator ... is going to have to keep a very tight ship and make sure that the culture that we are trying to create with this model is enforced and maintained."

Cornille said in response that the hiring process would include teams of campus representatives, including students, faculty, counseling staff and others.

Terrance Bond, assistant to the president for equity, diversion and inclusion, said he had brought concerns to both Risenberg and Kevin Eack, who is serving as a consultant for the plan after a stint as the college's director of risk management and public safety.

"I do feel that Steve has kind of set me at ease," Bond said. "I think the place where we will be most effective ... is in our assessment: Making sure that we don't wait to find out the impact... and getting that follow-up to make sure that what we're intending to do is coming across — and if it's not, that we're doing immediate corrections, particularly when we're talking about our populations of students of color."

Riesenberg said officials already have met with some community stakeholder groups in private, including the Bloomington-Normal NAACP, as well as Heartland's Student Government Association and the Black Student Union.

"To be fair, there were a few detractors: There were a couple of people in each of the groups we met with who voiced concern over having sworn officers on campus," he said. "But on the aggregate, all of these groups have been very supportive of the concept."

The board of trustees is slated to meet again Feb. 15. The vote on whether to add sworn officers to the newly-formed public safety department has been deferred at least until then.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.