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Bloomington police review board wants to spread the word that it's a broad-based community resource

Bloomington Public Safety and Community Relations Board meets, Thursday, June 2, 2022, at the Miller Park Pavilion.
Michele Steinbacher
The Bloomington Public Safety and Community Relations Board meets Thursday, June 2, 2022, on the patio of the Miller Park Pavilion.

Bloomington’s police review board wants to get the word out that the citizen-led group is equipped for more than handling formal complaints.

Some Bloomington City Council members in March called for the city to formally expand the board’s duties — beyond assessing complaints against the Bloomington Police Department. But it turns out, that proved unnecessary.

“There’s no need to change it,” said Public Safety and Community Relations Board (PSCRB) chairperson Ashley Farmer, during the group’s meeting Thursday at Miller Park Pavilion.

Farmer said Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe determined the bylaws already incorporate community outreach. Even so, the group is spearheading an effort to educate the community about all the board can offer.

No action was taken at Thursday's meeting. But the board heard updates about the BPD and its programs, as well as about the status of open board seats. Member William Bennett was absent.

PSCRB has partnered with local organizations to open conversations about racial disparities in traffic stops, and about automated license plate reader Flock cameras, Farmer said. The city also now shares information on its social media pages about when the PSCRB meets.

“Police complaints – that’s why we were established in the first place. But the community outreach, I agree, is a role that we play that may not be as well publicized,” said PSCRB member Art Taylor.

He encouraged city council members and other city leaders to connect individuals with board members, and to forward questions to them, as well.

Often people have misconceptions about the PSCRB’s role, the BPD’s role, and how the two groups work together, he said.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of a one-on-one conversation, to help someone understand the complaint process, said Taylor. Several steps come before a formal PSCRB review. But people don’t always feel comfortable approaching the police first, he added.

By making themselves available to Bloomington City Council members, or others in the community, PSCRB members can help address concerns early, he said. “So that we can take care of it on a proactive basis, rather than a reactive basis," he said.

More than half the city council attended Thursday's board meeting, including Ward 2’s Donna Boelen, Ward 5’s Nick Becker, Ward 6’s De Urban, Ward 8’s Jeff Crabill, and Ward 9’s Tom Crumpler.

Farmer noted that Bloomington Police Chief Jamal Simington and Assistant Chief Chad Wamsley also attend the PSCRB meetings regularly, and have created an open dialogue.

BPD says building trust essential

At Thursday's meeting, the board heard an update from the Bloomington Police Department.

Wamsley said six complaints have been filed against BPD officers so far in 2022. Those cases still are in the BPD process. Farmer said three are expected to be appealed, and then come before PSCRB review.

Wamsley also updated the board on recent police calls, and incidents when officers displayed weapons or used force.

Wamsley also relayed the department’s continued struggles with hiring enough officers to meet the department’s staffing needs.

BPD Sgt. Kiel Nowers led a presentation about the police department’s new community engagement unit. Nowers heads the unit, which he said is intended to develop relationships with residents outside of policing incidents.

The idea is to give advance notice that police will be out and available, to just have face-to-face conversations with residents. Nowers said he wants to reach, “especially people who have had a bad relationship, or no relationship with the police,” he said.

He said the outreach is more important than ever, as public trust in policing is at an all-time low, especially after the 2020 Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. The lack of trust is negatively impacting police investigations, he said.

In its first two months, the unit has taken part in nearly three dozen events, he said. Those include “Coffee with a Cop” at local restaurants, and a BPD neighborhood walk on Jefferson Street.

Third of police review board seats vacant

The PSCRB has places for nine mayor-appointed community members. However, three are vacant.

It's only been two months since the seat of the Rev. Brigitte Black, who died April 6, has been unfilled. However, it’s been more than a year since the city council OK’d creating a pair of one-year appointments for youth members, ages 16-21. But neither youth position ever has been filled.

The board’s next public meeting is 3:30 p.m. July 7 at the Miller Park Pavilion. Expected topics include a monthly report on use of force, updates on the board’s open positions, and a review of formal complaints.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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