Police in Bloomington-Normal say they don't expect any trouble on election night, but during this time of high tension, they also say they aren't taking any chances.
Spontaneous gatherings are common on the Illinois State University campus after presidential elections. ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff recalled a celebratory gathering in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected president. Then in 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, crowds on both sides of the political spectrum gathered on campus.
Woodruff said that scene was a bit more tense.
“I think the election result shocked a lot of people, so I think there was a lot of emotion tied to that election,” Woodruff said. “That’s why we are feeling it this time, too.”
Woodruff said there weren't any problems with those gatherings four years ago, but in 2020, a year marked by social unrest, protests across the country and one of the most bitterly divided presidential races in memory, police are preparing for the worst.
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner recently huddled with other local police chiefs to develop a strategy.
“There’s nothing that’s been out there of specific threats or concerns, but we are all aware of that. None of us are asleep at the wheel,” Bleichner said. “We have all done diligence and are doing planning in the event that something happens, we’ll have resources on hand to take care of that.”
Bleichner said NPD will boost staffing on election night and will have more officers on standby. Last week, officers responded to tips on social media about a threat of looting at the Walmart. The store boarded up the doors for a night, but nothing happened. Police don't know if the threats have any connection to the election. The scene was reminiscent of late summer when looters targeted several Twin City stores following racial justice protests.
Bloomington interim Police Chief Greg Scott said his department is better prepared now.
“We have developed some response teams that we can call in if we need to, as opposed to what had happened earlier in the year,” Scott said. “It was more of an, ‘Oh goodness, this is going on, we need to call everybody in.’ So we pulled in the oncoming shift early and hold the outgoing shift over late.”
Scott said BPD also has purchased helmets and face shields to better protect officers, adding the department also recently received peacekeeper training through the Mobile Team Unit at Heartland Community College to prepare for any post-election unrest.
“Officers that respond to protests or celebrations, they allow that to continue in a peaceful and lawful manner and support it until, and if, it turns unlawful or not peaceful and then we are forced to take action,” Scott said.
Woodruff said the university also has taken several steps to limit potential property damage.
“We do look at a sanitization process for making sure we minimize any potential issues on campus should things go awry, but certainly there’s a number of things that go into that,” Woodruff said.
Woodruff wouldn't discuss specifics, but for example, you can see on the ISU campus grounds where crews have placed landscape fabric and mulch over rocks at several locations so those rocks don't become projectiles in the wrong hands.
ISU wants to promote civic engagement, but in a peaceful way. The university will be emailing students and using social media to deliver messages about civility.
Police also are asking for patience. While the 2016 election results weren't known until the wee hours of the night, it's possible the election results this time might not be known for days because of a massive increase in mail-in balloting due to the pandemic.
Bleichner said his officers are prepared for the possibility of a delayed result -- and days or weeks of public anxiety.
“We can expand that and basically it would cover that period until we know what the outcome is and we know what the public’s response is going to be,” he said.
And, the pandemic may provide one benefit. About 40% fewer students are on campus than there would normally be because many are learning online this fall. Police hope that will help limit crowds, regardless of who wins the election.
Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly said his officers also will be highly visible to help local law enforcement with any disturbances at polling sites, election offices or public gatherings after the election.
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