One Case In Three Years: Calls For Changes To Springfield’s Police Review Panel

Jun 25, 2020

Over the past three years, Springfield’s Police Community Review Commission has considered a single case. But there are differing thoughts on why the board has such a light caseload and if change is needed.

City leaders wrangled with forming the citizen board for more than a decade before establishing it in 2005. The board has struggled off and on since.

Mayor Jim Langfelder appointed Kelvin Coburn to the commission, along with five more new members, in 2017 – after it had been dormant for several years.

“What we have is processes in place to make sure that each case is heard, to make sure that the community is collaborating with the police,” said Coburn, who is an auditor by profession.

The commission’s job is to check the work of the Springfield Police Department Internal Affairs Division. When a citizen complains about police misconduct, the division investigates.

If it finds no wrongdoing and the chief gives no punishment, a citizen can appeal that decision to the Police Community Review Commission. A letter to the complainant explaining the outcome of the investigation informs them of the option to appeal.

Commissioners look over the investigation, hear from both sides, and then vote to agree with the chief, disagree, or refer it back to internal affairs for further investigation.

But the review panel’s annual reports and meeting agendas show it has met infrequently since August of 2017. Before that, its last meeting was in 2008.

Few Complaints

Numbers from the police department show residents filed 14 misconduct allegations that the internal affairs division investigated between 2017 and 2019.

In just more than half, the police chief disciplined officers involved, so those cases couldn’t have been referred to the commission. Of the remaining six cases, one complainant appealed to the commission.

He didn’t show up for hearings scheduled March and April of 2019, according to Coburn and the commission’s annual report. It’s unclear if the commission made a recommendation. The minutes from the April 2019 meeting are not posted to the city's website because the commission hasn't met since then to approve them.  

Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory addresses the crowd at a Black Lives Matter Springfield parade, with Sunshine Clemons and other organizers.
Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois

Springfield Police Chief Kenny Winslow has said there are few complaints because the department is doing a good job.

Sunshine Clemons - president of Black Lives Matter Springfield - said she hears from many who don't know the Police Community Review Commission exists and in general distrust the complaint process.

“Me telling (the police department) that they're treating me unfairly or doing something wrong or whatever is not going to make a difference,” Clemons said the thinking is. “Because this is a historical thing that we've seen, where it doesn't seem to matter what the community or the public says.”

Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner and Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory echoed this explanation.

“To me, it signals a couple of things; that the commission is not functioning the way it was intended and that the community has no knowledge or very limited knowledge of the commission,” Turner said. “Access to it is definitely not what it should be.”

Deputy Police Chief Joshua Stuenkel told NPR Illinois the department has tried to welcome complaints. The internal affairs office is based just south of downtown off Fifth Street, so residents don’t have to go to the police station to file a complaint. Officers with the unit wear plainclothes instead of uniforms.

Residents can file complaints by calling on-duty supervisors, 217-788-8328, or visiting the internal affairs division at 510 E. Allen Street. They can also bring complaints directly to the police review commission, which are sent through the Office of Community Relations to the internal affairs division.

Stuenkel said being able to review body cam footage has also helped clear up misunderstandings between officers and residents that might have turned into complaints.

Coburn, the commission’s most recent chair, defended the work of the commission. He said the city should do more to advertise that it exists before changing policy.

“My message to all the people who are criticizing it, you're just playing politics,” he said. “Sit down somewhere because you do not have enough data to even judge the effectiveness of the commission.”

Langfelder said he’s committed to the city doing more outreach and education about the commission. He said he’s met with Black Lives Matter Springfield and the advocacy group Education and Action Together about policing.

“There’s always room for improvement as far as outreach,” Langfelder said.

‘Thoroughly And Fairly Investigated’

Liana Perez is training director for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which offers advice and best practices for agencies watching over the police.

Perez said figuring out whether there aren’t any complaints because the department is doing well, or because people don’t trust or know about the process is difficult.

“So the most you can do is do your due diligence on the other side and get the information out there,” she said.

During her time as the independent auditor of police in Tucson, Arizona, she said she would visit schools, court buildings, homeless shelters and the police academy to talk about her role.

“Communities want to know that their complaints are being thoroughly and fairly investigated,” she said. “And that there's accountability for actions, and that it's consistent.”

Perez said commissioners and city officials have to be advocates of the complaint process, including the police commission’s role.

“The biggest thing that you're trying to accomplish is that accountability and transparency to give the community trust in their law enforcement agency,” Perez said.

Reform Proposals

Recent police killings in other cities and protests against them have brought more scrutiny to law enforcement. Turner and Gregory are drafting changes to the police commission as part of a larger package that could include other policing reforms and economic development proposals.

“It hasn’t been fixed yet. Maybe we’ve made some steps forward and I would agree with that,” said Gregory. “But it's definitely a long way off from where it needs to be.”

They’re also looking at appointments to the seven-member commission, and other boards and commission as well.

“We need some diversity. We need to broaden our reach, and I think that this is one of those commissions that definitely we need to look at it from that vantage point,” Turner said.

Terms for Coburn and two of his fellow commissioners, Heather Easley-Dunn and Benjamin Schwarm, expired in May. City council members held back Schwarm’s reappointments in the last few weeks.

Marcus Lucas and Jasmin Woolfolk, the other two commissioners, are set to serve until May of 2021. Two of the seven seats are vacant.

Langfelder said council members are welcome to recommend appointees, and he’s open to hearing proposals.

“There will be some change without a doubt,” Langfelder said.