Urbana City Council delays decision to hire more police officers, facing resident pushback
URBANA — Urbana Police Chief Larry Boone asked the Urbana City Council Monday night to amend the budget to hire four additional police officers.
The Council deferred the decision until a national consulting firm hired by the department releases a report with staffing recommendations.
Boone requested $569,198 to fund four new positions, including a Deputy Police Chief and three officers in a new community outreach department.
The consulting firm BerryDunn has worked with police departments throughout the U.S. to evaluate their processes and offer recommendations. The firm’s staffing report was supposed to be finished at the end of November but has not yet been released. Boone proposed staffing changes without the results, which frustrated many residents.
“Isn't it premature to formally request additional police officers when we have not yet received the final report from BerryDunn?” Urbana resident Peggy Patten asked council members at the meeting.
Several people walked out of the meeting during Boone’s presentation. Most people who stayed to speak during the 2-hour public comment period said they want to see less money spent on policing, not more.
Dozens of speakers pushed back against the proposal; one person called it “laughably outrageous.” Many said they want to use city money to fund social service programs, mental health resources and increase the number of non-sworn officers.
The proposal for additional officers states: “As he endeavors to invigorate a range of community engagement initiatives, Chief Boone has determined that the department requires a dedicated group of sworn and professional staff members who can systematically and deliberately prioritize community engagement.”
Urbana residents like Martel Miller, a staff member at Cunningham Township who helps find housing for people without homes, said he doesn’t want more police officers. Miller, who is Black, said he’s been stopped by Urbana Police for merely driving or walking down the street.
Miller said he has also seen eight police officers deployed to a fight on an elementary school bus. These observations, he said, prove the Urbana Police Department is not struggling with staffing as much as they’ve let on.
“That means the officers [are] just looking for something to do,” Miller said.
Concerns about priorities for officers
Boone’s proposed ideas for the community engagement officers come from his prior experience, implementing similar initiatives at the police department in Norfolk, Virginia. Those efforts included deploying officers to teach children to read, work with barbers to give kids haircuts, bring local clergy members on calls for service and hand treats out of a “copsicle truck” seized by police during a drug sting.
Urbana resident and activist Derek Briles said residents have been asking for less police and more funding for social services for years.
“That's what we asked for — not more police, certainly not community outreach police to read books to children or whatever,” Briles said. “Hire a professional to do that.”
These programs lessened crime in Norfolk, Boone said. But most residents in attendance pushed back, expressing a desire for the city to address mental health concerns over community engagement programs Boone proposed.
In 2020, The Urbana Police Department, in collaboration with nonprofit C-U at Home, Rosecrance Behavioral Health Services, Carle Foundation Hospital and other Champaign County law enforcement units planned to create a program called One Door Crisis Response System, a co-responder model in which trained crisis workers would partner with police to provide care to people experiencing mental health crises.
However, the program was never launched. Administrative conversations about One Door stalled in early 2021, partially due to a lack of coordination among agencies as well as uncertainty about funding, according to reporting from Invisible Institute in 2022.
In 2021, the Urbana police announced a new crisis co-responder team pairing a Rosecrance social worker with an Urbana police officer to respond to calls for service involving mental health.
The department currently has one officer working as a behavioral health detective, Boone said in a phone call after the meeting. In the future, Boone said he’d like to include mental health response staff in the proposed community engagement office.
The department is waiting on the consultant report to make decisions on further mental health responses, he said.
Urbana police respond to about 25,000 calls for service a year, and about 800 of them are from people in mental or behavioral health crises, Urbana Mayor Diana Marlin said in 2021.
Urbana resident Peggy Patten said she was inspired to join the Civilian Police Review Board when the department announced the commitment to finding alternatives to policing — including how they respond to mental health calls. Patten has reviewed dozens of calls for service and Taser displays and discharges as a member of the Civilian Police Review Board.
After reviewing these materials, Patten said it’s even more important for the department to address calls for service involving mental health.
“To effectively respond to calls for service, it is quite apparent that we need additional mental health professionals working with our law enforcement,” Patten said.
Urbana resident and First Followers re-entry program founder James Kilgore said the police department isn’t the only group that’s looking for staff and funding in Urbana.
Additional funding in the city’s budget would be better used to expand mental health services, which he said his clients who are formerly incarcerated need more than police.
“We end up hearing about the need for more police — that the police have been making do,” Kilgore said. “Well, mental health services in this community have been making do for a long, long time, with very little coming their way.”
Missing Consultant Report
At a public meeting in November, Chief Boone told residents he’d like to hire 15 more police officers. The timeline of this proposal before the staffing report shows the department isn’t interested in following the consultants’ recommendations, said Urbana City Council Member Christopher Evans.
“I feel that the game is rigged and you've already made your decision on how many staff,” Evans said at the BerryDunn consultant meeting in November. “These aren't options. We've just been going through the motions.”
Patten said it’s irresponsible for the city to make decisions about staffing without the report they hired the firm to do.
“Given the investment we made in BerryDunn's consultant services, it seems hasty to me to request additional police staff before we know the outcome of Barry Dunn's detailed analysis,” Patten said.
Many police departments are dealing with unprecedented vacancy rates and tightening budgets, which cause them to struggle to keep up with workloads, according to BerryDunn’s website.
However, the Urbana Police Department’s budget has been increasing steadily each year — rising over $2.5 million between 2021 and estimates for 2023.
Many residents and council members were concerned about the proposal from the department, which cited conversations and reports that weren’t public.
“I find it highly problematic that we're quoting from information that is not publicly available,” Urbana Council Member Jaya Kolisetty said.
Throughout the presentation about the staffing proposal, Boone cited a report he wrote about 21st Century Policing — a term coined by President Obama. The framework involves building trust and transparency between police and people.
When asked by Urbana City Council Member Grace Wilken if that report had been made available to the public, Boone said it was shared with council members in one-on-one meetings.
When Wilken asked again if the report was publicly available, Boone said he would “make it available.”
“I was just hoping that you all would share it with your constituents,” Boone said.
Kilgore said to lessen crime in Urbana, the city needs to focus on increasing funding for social services to address the root causes of crime.
“People don't say, ‘I wish I had more police supervision, I wish my parole agent would get a little bit stricter with me so I could get on the straight and narrow,’” Kilgore said. “What people need is they need housing, they need employment, they need mental health services. These are all the things that are missing in this community.”
Farrah Anderson is an investigative reporting fellow with the Invisible Institute and Illinois Public Media, and a journalism student at the University of Illinois. Follow her on Twitter @farrahsoa.