City council considers cop commission

Citizen review board rarely meets

Springfield's Police Community Review Commission rarely meets, hears few cases and needs an overhaul, critics say.

The civilian commission, which is supposed to consider complaints from citizens, last met about a year ago, according to Kelvin Coburn, commission chairman, and has considered two cases in the past four years. The problem, he says, is publicity: People don't know that the commission exists, so few complaints are filed.

Others say that problems run deeper. On a unanimous voice vote, the city council last week tabled a request by Mayor Jim Langfelder to reappoint Benjamin Schwarm to the commission. At least two city council members say changes are needed to the commission, which Langfelder resurrected in 2017 by appointing new members, after previous appointments had lapsed and two years had passed without a meeting.

"I definitely want to take a very, very serious look at the commission and really break it down from A to Z and make sure it's in operation to be effective in today's environment," said Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory.

Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner said that she and Gregory are working on a package of ordinances aimed at improving health and investment in neighborhoods that should be ready in about a month, and she expects proposals to include changes to the commission. The lack of meetings and cases shows there's an issue, she said.

"I think that it tells me that the commission is not functioning in the way it was meant to when it was initiated," Turner said.

Amen, says Frank McNeil, who successfully pushed for the commission's creation in 2005 while serving on the city council. It took 15 years for council members to approve the idea. Within six years of the commission's first meeting, terms had lapsed under former Mayor Mike Houston, with few cases heard.

"It needs a total rewire," McNeil says. "What we're seeing today is what I was talking about back then. But there was no buy-in from the larger community. It was just an alderman from the east side griping about police."

McNeil, an attorney and radio host, says that the commission should have subpoena power and the authority to compel sworn testimony from officers. Otherwise, he says, the commission lacks tools to conduct independent investigations. "You're handcuffed, with very little you can do," he said. "If we're going to have police where people believe in the police and believe they can get a fair shake, the police are going to have to come down to the level of the citizens."

McNeil said he's spoken to Gregory and Turner about the commission. Turner says sworn testimony from officers and subpoena powers are important issues, but stopped short of saying those will be in the ordinance she plans. A draft should be ready in a month or so, she said.

Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso says she also has concerns about the commission that include ensuring that members don't serve on other city boards and commissions. Council members have criticized the mayor for naming people to seats on more than one board. Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin said the city needs to consider change. "I think it's time to review the scope and responsibilities of that commission," McMenamin said. "If we're holding up appointments to accomplish that goal, I'm in favor of it."

The commission, Coburn says, doesn't need subpoenas or sworn testimony from officers to review internal affairs investigations and determine whether the police chief properly decided cases. He said city police have a good track record. "Our officers haven't killed anyone," he said. "We have a process in place. In my opinion, it works."

McNeil says the city should get ahead of potential tragedies. "Do we have to wait for someone to get killed to put something in place to stop it?" McNeil asked. "The point is to try to stop these things from happening."

Coburn said that the mayor's staff contacted him within the past two weeks to ask about reappointment, but he's not sure that will work out, since he's moved to Chatham.

Contact Bruce Rushton at

brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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