A proposal to lease a west side home to the Bloomington Police Department (BPD) for use as a substation is receiving pushback.
The Bloomington chapter of Black Lives Matter and other residents have questioned whether Mid Central Community Action's (MCCA) proposal or Bloomington police thoroughly fleshed out the purpose of the substation, and even questioned what the house will be called. BPD generally refers to it as a substation, while MCCA and others shifted to calling it the "West Jefferson Community House." Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner said the name is immaterial.
"What we're doing and what we're trying to accomplish is not going to change because of the name," said Heffner. "If West Jefferson Community House makes people feel more comfortable and want to engage us more, which is the goal, I'm comfortable with that."
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, which stipulated that houses be rehabbed and sold as affordable housing by Mid-Central Community Action (MCCA), the collaborative's lead agency. When MCCA had trouble selling the property at 828 W Jefferson, they brainstormed with Bloomington police for ideas on how BPD might use the house, as MCCA canvassing of the neighborhood over four years found that residents were concerned about safety.
"The idea of a substation came to me through some neighborhood walks I had been on, and during my focus meetings, when some people had brought that up," said Heffner. "They said 'why don't you put a substation over there?' At times we had an issue with people walking in the street and where people thought if we were there more, like having a substation, that would deter it."
No matter the name, Heffner would like to utilize the house as a place for his officers already patrolling the neighborhood to stop in to write reports, eat a meal, relax, and even walk the neighborhood when weather allows. His vision includes the possibilities of neighbors stopping by to mingle with and get to know the officers.
"If somebody wants to come by to talk about football, baseball, or what kind of music they like ... and just get to know us better and we get to know them ... that's what I'm talking about," said Heffner.
Heffner said he is not going to force his officers to use the house, other than an initial visit by every officer on the force. Nor will he require them to walk the neighborhood, saying officers patrolling the west side already do.
"I want officers to do it of their own volition to kind of understand it. Now, will I talk to my officers about the importance of it and what we're trying to get out of it? Yes. We have officers that stop by the Boys & Girls club. A lot of it depends on calls for service. We may be busy all day and not be there all day, or somebody might be there just for one shift and be gone," said Heffner.
When the announcement was made in December that the council would vote a few days later on approving the use of the substation, the resulting outcry by Black Lives Matter caused the city council to table the vote for a month. BLM pushed hard to be granted input for how the house would be used, even inviting Heffner to their "Police Accountability Meeting" in late December to discuss policing issues, including the proposed substation. Heffner felt the meeting was unfair, in that other than a 5 minute opening statement, he was only allowed to answer "yes" or "no" to BLM's pointed questions. Despite the contentious nature of the fledgling relationship between the two, Heffner said there is room for dialog.
"When other people and organizations want to talk to me, my door is always open," said Heffner. "I've never been approached by anyone from that organizations, prior to those meetings. Ever. You have to be open to ideas or facts you didn't have information on. When we talk at M.A.P.P. (Minority and Police Partnership, where heads of law enforcement and minority groups meet bi-monthly) sometimes you agree to disagree on things respectfully, and at least you've had conversation about it. There hasn't been any dialog."