Police chiefs for Normal, Bloomington and Illinois State University say they have not recorded any incidents of black residents being harassed for wearing masks in public.
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner, Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath and ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff spoke Thursday night during a virtual town hall hosted by the Bloomington-Normal branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The group organized the meeting after speaking out against two recent high-profile killings of African Americans in the United States.
Local branch First Vice President Carla Campbell read a question submitted by an NAACP member in St. Louis, citing an incident there where police escorted two African American men wearing masks out of a Walmart after receiving a call that the men looked suspicious.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker began encouraging residents to wear masks in public in early April to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Asked how police chiefs would make sure blacks weren’t being harassed simply for complying with the governor’s recommendations, Donath said “common sense is what rules.”
Donath said he’s bothered by calls he’s received throughout his law enforcement career from residents identifying individuals wearing hoodies as “suspicious.”
“In law enforcement, we’re expected to respond,” he said. “Maybe we come out, we make contact with that person and determine yes or no, there’s nothing going on, but what does it do? The person that we stop and speak with thinks that the police are harassing them.”
Donath said he’s had conversations within his department about changing practices when it comes to responding to suspicious person calls.
“If we can clearly identify that there’s nothing suspicious, we’re not making contact with that person because it makes us look bad, and it makes that person feel like they’re being harassed or picked on,” Donath said.
Bleichner said that’s in line with the reduced-contact approach police departments in the region agreed to take when the pandemic first took hold in March.
Bleichner said the consensus was to limit arrests to violent crimes and felonies, or crimes against individuals like domestic violence or violations of protection orders. Low-level offenders who would otherwise be taken into custody are, instead, issued notices to appear in court. “So, it’s safer for the individuals, it’s safer for the officers, it limits the time of contact,” he said.
Both the Bloomington and Normal police departments have seen a rise in domestic violence cases since March, with Donath and Bleichner reporting 30% and 25% increases, respectively.
Woodruff said with ISU conducting virtual classes, and just 100 students living on campus, his department hasn’t made any arrests since March.
If anything, Twin City police departments have seen a rise in calls for people not wearing masks, the chiefs said.
Bleichner said with warmer weather, his department also now receives between 20 and 30 calls for social distancing violations on weekends.
Both he and Donath said their officers respond to such calls by asking those violating social distancing guidelines to voluntarily comply. If the individuals refused, they said officers would issue a citation and send a report to the state’s attorney’s office for review, but that hasn’t been necessary yet.
All three police chiefs said their officers wear personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, when responding in person to calls.
The police chiefs also reported efforts to increase minority hiring are ongoing during the pandemic.
Donath said BPD hired a record three minorities out of five total hires this spring. Bleichner said NPD updates its minority hiring plan annually, and its force now includes 11 female officers and eight minority officers. Woodruff said hiring in general has been down, with the department tracking a low percentage of female officers.
Bloomington-Normal NAACP Health Chair Arlene Hosea noted COVID-19 is still disproportionately affecting blacks in McLean County. Of the county’s 197 confirmed cases to date, 53 (about 27%) are black. “Which is still disturbing, because we make up 8% of the population,” Hosea said.
She said while local government and business leaders are supporting a regional approach to easing restrictions amid the pandemic, the group has yet to release any details for its “Heart of Illinois” reopening plan, including testing sites, contact tracing and shelter for individuals unable to isolate or quarantine at home.
“We recommend as much transparency from our leaders as possible, so that NAACP can be a partner to our community leaders, to be able to help communicate and educate the community about the next steps,” Hosea said.