Urbana's Police Review Board Hears Fewer Complaints, Citizen Appeals

Jun 28, 2017

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner listens to Ky Ajayi address a local Black Lives Matter forum in December. The group is one of several community organizations that has called for a citizen-led police review board in Bloomington.
Credit Colleen Reynolds

The Bloomington City Council is considering establishing a citizen-led police oversight board to receive complaints about police and offer citizens an a review process.  

The Council is using the city of Urbana's Civilian Police Review Board as its model. So how well has Urbana's board been working?

Nearly 10 years after its establishment, the existence of the Urbana board seems to have produced little change either in the number of complaints filed or in requests by citizens for the board to review a police department investigation into an officer's conduct, a GLT News review of statistics kept by the Urbana review board shows.

Complaints have actually gone down, as have the number of requests for appeals  by citizens. That's the case even though in the majority of cases, the Urbana department either ruled in the officer's favor or found insufficient evidence to make a determination.

In 2010, 10 complaints were filed with the board against the department. That number went down to seven in 2016.  The number of appeals requests by citizens went from one in 2010 to none in 2016.

"I don't  believe that fall -off is statistically significant and I don't think we can make a whole lot of generalizations from that," Urbana Deputy Police Chief Bryant Seraphin said.

Speaking on GLT's Sound Ideas, Seraphin said the decline in complaints and requests for review doesn't mean the civilian board isn't working.

"The Urbana experience has genuinely been positive," he said.

"The officers aren't nearly as concerned about it as they were 10 years ago when we went down this road. And I think it works well in trying to make sure we're being open and transparent by having an extra layer of review."

In the 2010 cases, two officers were found to have acted properly; one complaint was deemed "unfounded," five were closed for "insufficient evidence;" two were closed with no findings.

In 2016, three complaints were deemed "unfounded." In the other four, the officers' conduct was upheld.

Seraphin said he does not believe the fact that no citizens sought appeals last year is evidence of the public's lack of confidence in the board. 

"I would like to think that after going through the investigation process -- there is usually time spent between the complainant and police department and there is a lot more information given to the complaining party - hopefully after all that they have been satisfied," Seraphin said. 

When the ordinance establishing a civilian review board was first proposed in 2008, most of the rank and file officers were "apprehensive" about it, even though it had the support of the police chief at the time, Seraphin said.

"It took a little time to get the officers aware of the process and how it worked, but at this point it hasn't been an issue for officers." 

He said officers at the time were concerned that the review board could order them to give evidence before its members. This turned out not to be the case, and will not be the case under the Bloomington proposal as well.

"The Civilian Police Review Board is more of an appeals-based process. It does not conduct its own investigations,"  Seraphin said. That would be the same in Bloomington if the proposed ordinance passes.

Bloomington Chief Brendan Heffner has opposed the establishment of a police review board in the past, but appears to have softened his position more recently.

Several community organizations including the local NAACP, Black Lives Matter of Bloomington-Normal, the YWCA of McLean County, the League of Women Voters of McLean County, the American Civil Liberties Union ofCentral Illinois and Not In Our Town have expressed support for the proposed Bloomington ordinance.

Civilian review boards have proved controversial in some cities. Cleveland's police review board was criticized by the U.S. Justice Department in 2014 for a lack of transparency.

 The New York Civil Liberties Union complained that New York's board has been co-opted by the city's police department. 

 Still, the watchdog group The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement says review boards do play an important role in holding officers accountable, in keeping records of complaints, identifying necessary policy changes and building public trust in law enforcement. 

 

WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.