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Q&A: Police review board's Kimberly Howard and Ashley Farmer say new teen member bridges generation gap

It’s been five years since the Bloomington City Council passed an ordinance creating a resident-led police review board.

And now, for the first time, the city's Public Safety and Community Relations Board includes a teen member.

That’s unique among Bloomington committees and commissions, says Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe. He recently appointed 16-year-old Kimberly Howard to the PSCRB youth position, made official with city council approval on July 25.

Just two weeks after her first police review board meeting, the teen begins her senior year at Bloomington High School. The daughter of Rhonda and Tony Howard says she’s also working two part-time jobs, serving as captain of the BHS color guard, and staying involved in choir and theater — among other activities.

Despite her busy schedule, Howard made time to meet with PSCRB chairperson Ashley Farmer and WGLT, to talk about the significance of the board adding youth members.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: Ashley, can you begin by telling us the purpose of the PSCRB?

So, it's meant to be a board that bridges the gap between the police and the community, in several different ways. The primary way is, of course, by reviewing appealed complaints from the police department. But we also have meetings in which we address issues of concern that the public might have when it comes to the Bloomington Police Department. Most recently, of course, some of those issues have been the Flock Safety system automated license plate readers, as well as racial disparities in traffic stops. So issues like that, that are a community concern, are something that the board addresses as well.

Kimberly, why do you think it’s significant the city council took steps to add youth seats to the board?

Everybody has different experiences – age, race, class. Everybody has different things going on. Just the fact that they thought about adding a youth member, like a younger person, it says so much. I can go out, and to my peers and talk to them. And I can come back to my committee and talk to them about what I learned. So the board can be more in the loop, when it comes to the younger generation.

The city council voted to add two youth members in 2021. Ashley, what are some reasons it's taken 18 months for the mayor and council to move forward with that?

Initially, there were issues recruiting people due to COVID. And then, you know, just trying to get the word out. At times some students from Normal were interested. But that qualification is there that you have to live in Bloomington to be a part of the board. Making sure those qualifications, then, were very clear. Also just, time-wise I mean, you heard how busy Kimberly is. So I think it's just a matter of someone who is willing to carve out that time because high school students are really busy. In addition to activities and things like that, they’re often working at least a part-time job.

Ashley, as leader of this board, can you explain how the Bloomington community benefits from having youth members involved?

Younger people tend to have more police contacts compared to other populations. That's especially true for the 14 - to- 25 age group, right. So that makes it even more important that we have someone from that age group, as a part of our board – who can understand what those interactions might be like for, especially a juvenile, or someone who is just turning 18, 19 years old, what those police interactions might look like, and how those police interactions might influence opinions. Once someone has an established opinion of the police, it can be really hard to change that later on.

Kimberly, you’ve shared what a busy schedule you already have. I know board member Rachel McFarland recruited you. But what persuaded you to apply for the appointment?

Being a spokesperson and advocate and being able to help that bridge with the police department, I felt like it would help me a lot, grow more. I also want to have a voice. I'm very vocal with my opinions. And when I get comfortable, the board will see. As much as I want to make it positive – when I do get comfortable, I will call out when I feel like something's wrong.

The city council approved Howard’s one-year appointment in July, after the mayor recommended her for the post. Mwilambwe says the 16-year-old’s application impressed him, especially with how much she already serves the community with volunteer work, and her career goal of working in the medical field.

Of the nine-person board, one youth seat remains open for a one-year term; and one regular seat, for a three-year term, hasn't been filled since the April death of board member, the Rev. Brigitte Black.

At the PSCRB’s upcoming quarterly meeting — on Sept. 1 — the board is expected to update information on Flock Safety cameras, and racial disparities in traffic stops, according to Farmer. BPD representatives also will lead a presentation about the rules and regulations surrounding marijuana use in Illinois, she said.

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