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Board Responds to Concerns Over Ties To Bloomington Police

Bloomington's Public Safety and Community Relations Board at its first quarterly meeting Wednesday, March 21, 2018, at City of Refuge Church in Bloomington.

A year after Bloomington’s Public Safety and Community Relations Board (PSCRB) was created, questions linger about the board's independence.

The PSCRB hasn't received a single complaint. Residents and community organizers say they have concerns the board is too close with the police.

Jenn Carrillo, director of Mission Impact at YWCA McLean County, said heavy police involvement is counterintuitive to the role of the board.

“If they perceive that it's the police who are running the show, if you will, at the PSCRB table, then we won't actually accomplish what we set out to accomplish,” Carrillo said.

Carrillo helped draft the ordinance and that created the PSCRB and was one of the first to raise concerns.

Board Chairman Art Taylor said a relationship between the two is necessary and that the board doesn’t take up a complaint without it first being submitted through BPD.

“We would always want open communication or continuing dialogue, so that there's no misunderstandings as to each other's roles in the complaint process, there needs to be some dialogue and understanding, and therefore a relationship with the police as well as the police with the PSCRB,” Taylor said.

Jenn speaks to crowd
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Jennifer Carrillo, left, director of mission impact at YWCA McLean County, spoke to advocates after the PSCRB vote July 24, 2017.

Police attend every meeting of the PSCRB. Carrillo said the board's role is to assure residents Bloomington Police investigate complaints fairly, so it must operate independently from police.

The board was set out to give residents the security of knowing a second set of eyes would ensure police complaint investigations were done properly, she said.

YWCA McLean County along with the NAACPACLUNot In Our Town and Black Lives Matter assisted in drafting the ordinance that created the PSCRB.

"As we noted that there were problems, or people told us stories about a negative interaction they had, we would ask, 'Well, did you file a complaint?' And the response was always, 'The police review their own complaints so I don't feel particularly hopeful that that's going to come out in my favor,’” Carrillo said.

A Good Sign?

PSCRB members say the lack of complaints is a good thing, not a sign of something wrong. Taylor said it means BPD is doing its job of reviewing initial complaints well, and that the absence of work for the board also shows how early in life the PSCRB is.

“If and when we do have a complaint that's filed through the police department, then we have our process that we'll work through,” Taylor said. “But until we have that first complaint, it's kind of conjecture as to how that process will work. And we're hopeful that it will.”

To file a complaint with the PSCRB, residents first file with BPD. If they are unhappy with the resolution, the complaint can be escalated to the PSCRB.

Bloomington Police Chief Clay Wheeler said though the board has been around for a year, they don't meet often.

"Until we have that first complaint, it's kind of conjecture as to how that process will work. And we're hopeful that it will."

“It's not like, you know, if I went to work for six months, five days a week, that would be much more substantial,” Wheeler said. “But, when you're talking about a monthly meeting, that's a pretty short amount of time.”

Residents can turn in complaints at the police station, to the city manager, or at a PSCRB meeting.

But Carrillo said that's fewer options than it might first appear.

“They may have been people who had a negative interaction with the police and are afraid that there would be retaliation if they came forward," Carrillo said. "So to expect that those folks are going to make their way in to the police department for a meeting, I don't think that's the best way to make it clear to the community that this is an independent entity.”

Taylor said there’s "always a possibility for change," but that the PSCRB has no budget and BPD provides a free space for those meetings.

“We're also open to being invited by any of our community partners that want to host a PSCRB meeting,” Taylor said. “We're open to any location that would provide us that space that we can hold those monthly meetings and have them open to the public, and we're happy to work with the community in that respect.”

One change the PSCRB has made to show a separation from the BPD was updating their webpage so that Chief Wheeler is no longer the board’s primary point of contact.

Wheeler says Nora Dukowitz, Bloomington’s communication manager, is now the contact.

“They definitely want staff there to be able to answer their questions and so forth, but I definitely recognize that the liaison should not be listed as the police department,” Wheeler said.

Beyond Complaints

Advocates say they hope the board will do more than address complaints.

ACLU Central Illinois head Tom Cullen said recently it's time for the board to "take off the training wheels."

Carrillo, a community activist and Bloomington City Council candidate, said the ordinance empowering the PSCRB specifically mentions the board can make policy recommendations to BPD.

“And I actually think that's critical, right? Because they could sit around and wait for a complaint to come in, or they could take a proactive approach in looking at data and determining what training needs, what policy needs, perhaps are falling through the cracks or not being met,” Carrillo said.

One of the statistics used while pushing for the PSCRB to be established was the disproportionate searches and arrests of black people in the community, according to Carrillo.

But the board said it's too early for changes. Taylor said nothing needs amending yet.

“The city council recently approved our work rules and until we have reason to make some changes due to a situation that may arise via a complaint or that the city council sees fit to amend the city ordinance that created the PSCRB, there's nothing in the works right now that indicates that anything needs to be changed,” Taylor said.

Taking A Step Back

Before the PSCRB held its first meeting in March, Taylor said the board had to elect positions, assemble posters and brochures, and review the state's open meetings law.

Carrillo said once the board is past its training period, "it would be prudent for the police to take a little bit of a step back to let the board grow into itself."

“I would hope that as that relationship becomes more robust that it is OK for the police to not always be present and to understand that the PSCRB is working in the best interest of the community, and also to better our police department,” Carrillo said.

Regardless of the growth stage of the board, Carrillo said she hopes the panel will continue to serve as a platform for the community to come together to talk about concerns. 

“And to see that those complaints, or grievances, or comments, suggestions, are being taken seriously and acted upon is reassuring,” Carrillo said.

Taylor said the board worked hard to make sure there are ways for complaints to be filed anonymously, which he hopes reassures those who are feeling apprehensive.

The next monthly meeting of the PSCRB will be Aug. 8 at 3:30 p.m. in the police department.

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