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Heartland Community College yet to decide if new public safety department will include sworn officers

Emily Bollinger
It's been nearly three months since Heartland's Board of Trustees voted in favor of establishing a new public safety department that would end the college's longstanding practice of contracting out its security workers.

Whether Heartland Community College will add sworn officers to its in-house public safety department is still to be decided, according to administrators who led a public forum on the topic Thursday evening.

It's been nearly three months since Heartland's Board of Trusteesvoted in favor of establishing a new public safety department that would end the college's longstanding practice of contracting out its security workers.

Officials said they've spent that time, in part, meeting with various community groups to solicit feedback on whether any of its forthcoming officers should be sworn officers, which implies armed.

That included a series of forums on Thursday for students and employees during the day and a session for the public during the evening: Aside from Heartland staff or board members, Bloomington-Normal NAACP president Linda Foster and Normal Township trustee Art Rodriguez were the only two attendees to listen to a presentation from HCC Associate Director of Public Safety Steve Riesenberg that evening.

Foster said she supported the college's proposed model, which Riesenberg has described as being primarily a community service-oriented department — a "hybrid of non-sworn public safety officers that are not armed and a small complement of sworn police officers who are."

"I don't have any concerns; I just want to applaud you for taking these steps which, according to your surveys, are kind of unique," Foster said. "We know that over the past several years, there's been some trepidation with the presence of law enforcement — we just know that. So, to have a campus this size thinking outside of the box regarding the students and the staff says a lot."

Foster encouraged Heartland officials to prioritize an emphasis on mental health, calling preventative measures "paramount."

"We know that there's a lot at stake because nobody can have the entire answers, but you've got to start somewhere," she said. "So we applaud you for starting to initiate those steps."

Rodriguez also voiced his support before questioning how Heartland would make the public safety officer position competitive, regardless of whether any of those officers end up armed or not.

"That's always a key part of retention of any officer: Are they going to use this as a stepping stone to the Sheriff's (Department) or to the state?" he said.

Riesenberg said Heartland is offering $20 an hour — a wage that's drawn 43 applicants for the 10 positions for which the college is currently hiring. He said that dollar amount "puts us above other private security contractors in the area ... coupled with college benefits and that we give vacation and sick time."

A couple of Heartland employees voiced concern over the idea of having any of the incoming public safety officers be sworn — or armed — altogether, calling it a potential source of trauma for students who have experienced negative interactions with police.

Jean-Marie Taylor, a part-time faculty member, said she felt the college had done itself a "disservice" via the way it had advertised the public forums.

"The way it was announced, as just this, sort of, public safety forum — students aren't going to show up for a 'Public Safety Forum,'" she said. "If you say to students, 'We're considering putting armed officers on campus for everyone's safety,' you might get a different response. The community is much broader than this (audience tonight). The quality of responses you're getting is directly related to how much information people had before they came."

Heartland officials told WGLT on Thursday that while no other additional forums have been scheduled, they aren't ruling out the possibility of others — and conversations with school and community members remain ongoing.

President Keith Cornille said there is not a "rush" to get an action item related to sworn officers in front of the Board of Trustees.

"Why now are we having the question with regard to whether we should consider armed officers is because we're bringing all of this to campus — we're establishing our own public safety environment here and our own force, if you will, with regard to public safety," Cornille said. "So, you have to ask yourself a lot of questions with regard to risk management and the types of things you want to put in place. We're asking the question, we're trying to get input from people across different spectrums in order to say what is best for us. Just because we ask the question doesn't mean we're doing it."

Regardless, Heartland's contract with its current security services provider, Allied Universal, is set to expire June 30, putting the college's public safety department start date as July 1.

During a Jan. 19 trustees' meeting, projections showed the switch to an in-house security force will come with an increased cost of around $450,000, up to just over $1 million annually from a little over $700,000 currently.

A director, three supervisors and 11 public safety officers are slated to be hired, according the model Heartland has proposed. Those officers are slated be trained in the basics of CPR, AED use, and crisis intervention.

If any of those officers were to be sworn as law enforcement, it would give the college access to radio communications with other police in the Twin Cities and the county, as well provide a legal source for procedural questions from students or employees on how to address domestic violence or stalking issues on-campus, Riesenberg said.

He added that there would not be active policing on-campus and that, if any of those officers were to be sworn, an emphasis on de-escalation tactics and mental health awareness will be made during training.

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