Police review under review

“I don’t want that ‘versus’ to be in there”

Mayor Jim Langfelder is pushing for appointments to the city's Police Community Review Commission absent a promised overhaul to improve the effectiveness of a board that rarely has met since its establishment 15 years ago.

Langfelder is asking the council to approve the appointments of Sunshine Clemons, founder of the Springfield chapter of Black Lives Matter, Esteban Sanchez, former federal prosecutor and retired Sangamon County associate judge, and Diamond Jackson, third vice president of the Springfield chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to the commission tasked with hearing complaints against police, who have long resisted civilian oversight.

Last July, two Langfelder appointments to the commission squeaked through the council, with the mayor in one case breaking a 5-5 council tie. At the time, Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner, who voted against both appointments, said that appointing members to the seven-member commission was premature: The city shouldn't put people on a commission that rarely considers complaints against the police, as intended when the city created the commission in 2005.

Appointments, Turner said last summer, shouldn't be considered until the city changes how the near-dormant commission operates. Calling the commission dysfunctional, she said that she and Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory, who also voted no on appointments last summer, were working on a package of legislation to address concerns about police and racism.

"The police review commission is part of that package," Turner told colleagues in July. "There is, right now, a view toward a complete overhaul of the Police Community Review Commission. That's the reason I'm voting no: I want to wait and see what the new commission is going to look like before we make appointments." Langfelder, also, made promises last summer, when he compared the commission to body cams and inspectors general. "There will be changes coming," he said in July.

Nearly five months later, no proposal has surfaced that would change the way that the commission operates. Neither Turner nor Gregory responded to interview requests.

Suggestions have included giving the commission subpoena power so that investigations would be independent as opposed to reviews of internal affairs files. Langfelder says that there have been "initial discussions" since last summer, but nothing solid. "We've talked about a couple items," he said. "The challenge with us is, how does that fit into the disciplinary process of the police department?"

Ward 6 Ald. Kristen DiCenso, who joined Turner and Gregory in voting against appointments in July, said that she'd like to see changes promised last summer before making appointments, although she praised Langfelder for choosing Clemons and Jackson. "I think there's still work that needs to be done," she said. DiCenso said that she hasn't spoken with Turner or Gregory recently about their efforts, but doesn't fault either for lack of solid proposals. The pandemic, she says, can slow things down: "I say we take a wait-and-see until something is brought forward."

In October, Turner backed off a proposal that would have required the commission to review all citizen complaints against police – it passed the council unanimously after restrictions on the use of pepper spray also were excised. "There's nothing in this ordinance that handcuffs our police department – nothing," Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath, a former cop whose son is a Springfield police officer, said before voting in favor.

Teresa Haley, president of the Springfield and state chapters of the NAACP, says there is no need to postpone appointments. "You have to start somewhere," she says. "There is no perfect answer. I believe it's time to move forward."

Clemons says that she'd like the commission to have subpoena power, but that's not a must. "As it stands now, work still can be done," she says. The commission, she said, can bring transparency to the police department. "The goal is not to beat them over the head," she said.

Sanchez said that it's too soon for him to make any recommendations on how the commission should operate. "Whatever the city council wants us to do we will try to do," he said. "They will dictate."

Jackson sees a role for the commission beyond considering complaints. She envisions meetings with city and state police where cops and civilians can learn from each other.

"I think a lot of it has to do with increasing relations between everyone," Jackson said. "It's kind of like the commission versus the police department – I don't want that 'versus' to be in there."

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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