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Normal Council Members Cautious On BLM BloNo's Police Funding Demand

Karyn and Chemberly
Normal City Council members Karyn Smith, left, and Chemberly Cummings are reacting to the list of policy demands made by Black Lives Matter BloNo.

Mayor Chris Koos said he plans to arrange a meeting with Black Lives Matter BloNo leadership so they can lay out any specific concerns with the Normal Police Department.

When asked to respond to the full list of BLM BloNo demands released two weeks ago, Koos said that a meeting is the first step.

“I understand there are issues nationwide that need to be addressed depending on the police department and the community you’re working with. But I need to understand the problem they are solving with the Normal Police in their request to us,” Koos told WGLT.

BLM BloNo’s sweeping set of policy demands came on the heels of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis. The first demand is to decrease local police funding by 50% by 2023, freeing up millions for social programs and other “initiatives to ensure the survival and success of Black people.”

City council member Chemberly Cummings said police departments in small and midsized cities like Normal already run pretty lean. Normal spends around $14 million per year on police, mostly in salaries and benefits.

“When you talk about cutting that, which is already lean, what are you left with? That leaves me with some concerns,” Cummings said. "It’s one of those surface things. It doesn’t get to the root of it. It doesn’t get to the root of racism. It doesn’t get to the root of how we change culture.”

Cummings said the complexity of municipal budgeting means it’s not easy to just redirect money from a police department budget to social services, as many of those programs are run at the county or state level.

Fellow council member Karyn Smith raised similar concerns, saying this moment reminded her of how Illinoisans with developmental disabilities were treated decades ago, when there were calls to close large state-run “warehouse” institutions and replace them with community-based services.

"I get it. I understand it. I've seen it myself."

“The first part happened. The state-mandated housing and services was dismantled. The second part—the funding for community-based services—never lived up to the hype,” Smith said. “And instead, you saw the homeless population explode in numbers, and the vast majority of them do often have underlying mental health issues.”

At first glance, Koos said it doesn’t appear NPD is overstaffed, given the “severe budget constraints” the town has faced in recent years. The department’s number of full-time employees (92 or 93) has been largely unchanged for several years.

Koos said cutting police funding by 50% by 2023 could be self-defeating.

“The unintended consequence of that is the younger and minority officers would be laid off because of the seniority system,” Koos said.

Yet Smith said she’s eager for a true dialogue about BLM BloNo’s list of demands. She recalled her own experience years ago serving on a citizens review panel for foster care cases in Georgia, where she saw people of color with addiction issues criminalized while their white counterparts were not.

“I get it. I understand it. I’ve seen it myself,” Smith said. “I think a larger debate is needed over, not the simplistic defund the police, but what kind of society do we want? And what are we willing to pay for, and how can we make that happen?”

Like Smith, Cummings said she’s interested in talking about the role of school resource officers (SROs) in public schools. One of BLM BloNo’s demands is to eliminate SROs and invest that money into hiring Black counselors and teachers.

It’s important that everyone understands SROs are not there to play a disciplinary role, especially as it relates to students of color, Cummings said. Asking officers to wear something other than their full police uniform might help, she said.

And while the job is largely about relationship-building, she said “we can’t ignore” the reality that school shootings and domestic violence issues present real safety threats.

“These things happen. This is the world we live in. It’s nice to know there’s protection that when that happens, they can be there,” Cummings said.

Cummings said she’s more interested in attacking the “root issues” underlying individual acts of racism. She was one of the organizers of the Town of Normal’s inaugural racial equity summit at Heartland Community College last fall.

Cummings, who is the only person of color on the Normal City Council, said more diversity among elected officials is key, so that day-to-day decisions about ordinances and hiring are made with an inclusive lens.

“We’ve got to be intentional,” she said.

Council members Scott Preston, Kevin McCarthy, and Stan Nord did not return requests for comment for this story. Kathleen Lorenz said she was traveling and was not available for comment at publication time.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.