Despite forming barely two months ago, the Bloomington-Normal chapter of Black Lives Matter has already publicly voiced concerns about how the Bloomington police department polices especially west side neighborhoods, and about a proposed police substation at 828 W. Jefferson street.
Illinois State University politics and government professor Ky Ajayi is part of leadership for Black Lives Matter. He says BLM is objecting to the proposed substation because BPD hasn't solicited community input on the purpose of the substation, especially from residents of the neighborhood.
"How are you policing us?" asked Ajayi. "Let us have some input to tell you what's working for us, what's not working, and what we would like to see."
Bloomington police has interacted with especially young people in a number of activities over the last couple decades, occaionally dropping by the Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, handing out toys at Christmas, playing basketball with kids, and with the ubiquitous "coffee with a cop" promotion. Ajayi said that outreach is "laudable", but that community policing is not "an agenda item."
"It's a systemic approach to how you deal with your community," said Ajayi. "So community policing is a cop walking a beat, a cop knowing the people he patrols. It's an engagement with the community on a long and consistent basis. It doesn't happen with the stroke of a pen. You don't open a storefront police station or a substation and say 'yep, like magic, we have community policing.'"
The idea for the substation came out of a grant to the West Bloomington Housing Collaborative from the Illinois Attorney General's office in 2012. The grant stipulated that houses be rehabbed and sold as affordable housing by Mid-Central Community Action (MCCA) collaborative's lead agency. When MCCA had trouble selling the property at 828 W Jefferson, they re-worked the grant with the Attorney General's office to lease the house to Bloomington police for use as a substation, noting that canvassing of the neighborhood over four years found that residents were concerned about safety.
Since the early January announcement of the proposed substation, the local Black Lives Matter chapter has questioned its stated purpose as a place for police to drop in to write reports, eat lunch, relax, and maybe walk the neighborhood in good weather. It is hoped that a police presence will deter crime in a neighborhood that has had it's share of shots fired incidents in the last few years. After pushback from BLM, MCCA began referring to the proposed substation the "Jefferson Street Community House." Ajayi thinks the quick name change is one indication the idea hasn't been properly vetted. He said if 828 W. Jefferson is going to be called a community house, other groups should be considered for an opportunity to lease the property as an outreach point in what he characterized as "the heart of the west side."
"The Boys and Girls Club ... the YWCA ... my church (Wayman A.M.E.). There's a gentleman who was at the MCCA meeting yesterday who said he would love to be there once a week. Right now they meet at Friendship Park every Friday working with youth. And we could have real community engagement. So why isn't a community organization running the thing and allowing the police to come and go, while the community and community organizations get to interact with the community?" asked Ajayi.
The Bloomington city council will vote on the substation January 23.