(UPDATED: 11/04/2009)

For the past three weeks, Champaign-Urbana has been scrambling to make sense of what happened on the afternoon of October 9th, when 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington was killed by a bullet discharged by Champaign Police Officer Daniel Norbits' sidearm. The verbiage of that last statement is itself a testament to how few facts the public has had at its disposal. So as not to disturb the investigation, the Champaign Police Department has yet to officially acknowledge that Norbits himself was responsible for Carrington's death. Of the Five W's, the question of when is the only one that has perhaps been fully addressed, while the question of why has become more complex with each passing day. Since news broke of this tragedy, C-U's young people have been asking themselves why one of their peers was killed during an encounter with the police.

(A memorial outside the Vine Street home where Kiwane was killed)

"I was shaken up when I first found out," Zac, a local high school student, community leader, and neighbor of the slain boy, told me when I asked how he reacted to news of Carrington's death. "Its frustrating for me, not just because he's a teenager, but also because he's a black youth like I am. And you know, this is not the first time a black youth has had trouble with the police. They may not always be violent with us, but I've been in some pretty hostile situations with the police before, even though I'm always calm and respectful to them." Zac's observations can be added to the litany of alleged abuse that was presented at last week's Champaign City Council meeting.

Former Urbana City Councilwoman Danielle Chenowyth, along with a variety of community activists and concerned residents from both Champaign and Urbana, used the council meeting as a platform to speak out against alleged abuses of power by CPD officers (click here for a list compiled by C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice).

Many people took their time in front of the council to call for the resignation of various police and city officials, but perhaps the most heartfelt call came from a young woman named Virginia who had been friends with Carrington. "Officer Norbits should go down for this, and whoever else is behind him should too; if that includes you, that includes you," Carrington's former classmate told the council before ceding the podium to Urbana City Councilman David Gerig.

Gerig highlighted the potential of a Citizen's Police Review Board. A board such as this would provide Champaign residents with an institutionalized avenue with which to redress concerns not only with police conduct, but also with potentially controversial police policies and procedures, such as CPD's new use of force guidelines (click here to download a PDF of the new policy)

The new policy, which went into effect only nine days prior to Kiwane's killing, states that a peace officer is justified in using deadly force when that force is "necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape," a provision which was not in the old policy. The document goes on to state that, in addition to fleeing, the suspect must have "committed or attempted to commit a forcible felony which involves the infliction of great bodily harm," or has otherwise proven dangerous.

Given the fact that Carrington and his companion were unarmed when they were shot at, it remains unclear whether such a policy would justify the officers' actions on October 9th. Many of the citizens who commented during last Tuesday's meeting took issue with the policy's existence, some stating that it was created outside the purview of the elected members of the council. Among those outraged by this development was retired city Housing Commissioner Terry Townsend, who told Mayor Schweighart and members of the council, "You're supposed to be the policy makers, but if they're making policy in the police department, if they're making policy in the public works division, then you don't have control over policy."

Still others addressed the addition of tasers to the new policy. Barbara Kessel, a local activist and member of the Coalition of Citizens Concerned About Tasers, blasted the CPD for not including local advocacy groups in the formation of the policy, pointing out that Police Chief Finney had previously stated his openness to having her organization involved in his decision-making process. "We are deeply disappointed in both the brief policies themselves and in the lack of openness in dealing with us," Kessel said. Since its revelation, this new Use of Force policy has sent shivers through the community that have rippled out into the youth community.

CPD's Use of Force policy has been cause for specific concern among the young people I've spoken with over the past few weeks. One local high school student told me that he had "no idea that the police could shoot me for running or for doing something they thought was resisting. What if I'm running away but its because I'm scared or because I don't understand that they're talking to me? Why can they just shoot me?"

* Police spokeswoman Rene Dunn referred me to the CPD's press release with regards to the new policy which states that the new Use of Force guidelines are a more explicit version of the old policy.  The release goes on to say that, "The previous policy merely referenced the statute, and the revised policy includes the full text." (Click here for the press release and here for the state policy it refers to.) She also asked that residents view the two documents in context with the new policy.

The CPD's response to the outcry heard at the council meeting has, however, not convinced some who continue to question its rationale for a new policy. (Anecdotally, it has been expressed by others in the comments section of this article, that the Use of Force policy should not be of central importance to the case.)**

Besset Sabourin, an area Special Education teacher, expressed his concern for students with developmental disabilities and or behavioral disorders might be effected. "Interacting with the police can be stressful for anybody, but if a student can't understand what's going on or has issues dealing with stress or authority, I would imagine that they are at an increased chance of getting injured or killed," said Sabourin. He went on to express his fear that the new use of force policy could expose a gap in the way he and his cohorts educate their students, stating, "We don't address the proper procedures for how to assertively communicate with a police officer as much as we ought to."

Recently the CPD and Unit 4 has begun using School Resource Officers as a way to address this, though many parents and students have expressed trepidation at the idea of an armed police officer having a permanent presence in an ostensibly safe learning environment.

The program, which started in 2006 as a way to more closely monitor potential criminal behavior by students while encouraging a greater sense of community between police and students, has been controversial since its inception. It too was criticized at the council meeting when members of C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice claimed that 80% of the students who have had contact with their SRO have been African American.

When I asked Unit 4 Assistant Superintendent Michael McFarland about this claim, he denied knowing the demographic information for those students. He did say that he believes in Unit 4's partnership with the Champaign Police Department, and is "troubled whenever any student has [negative] involvement with law enforcement." When asked whether or not the superintendent's office has a way of assessing the conduct of SROs, he told me they did not. Such power would have to be granted by the school board.

In light of this, its worth noting that many teens and parents I spoke with praised the SRO in their school. Officer Thomas of Central High School was mentioned several times as an exemplar, but given Carrington's death and the recent developments surrounding use of force, many citizens remain troubled by the idea of police officers being installed in the schools.

But most people agree that community/police relations are strained for more than one reason. In his comments to the council, Townsend saw the CPD's "historical relationship of harassment and unconscious bias" toward young African Americans as being of central importance.

When I asked Zac about this, he told me that he agreed — then he offered a potential solution. "We need something that will bridge the gap between both communities. Something that will help us address violence towards police as well as police brutality. We definitely need something like a citizen's review board, but why not have teens from both high schools in town on the board too?" An interesting suggestion to be sure, but one he acknowledges as being presumptive given the city's current lack of communication with Champaign's young people. "First, we need some answers."

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Upcoming events:

Tuesday, November 10th, 7 p.m.: The Champaign City Council will take up the Champaign Police Department's new use of force policy.

Thursday, November 12th, 11 a.m.: There will be a hearing at the Champaign County Courthouse for the young man who accompanied Kiwane when he was killed.  Initially charged with burglary, Kiwane's best friend is now faced with aggravated resisting a peace officer, a juvenile Class 4 felony which carries with it a possible three year prison sentence.  State's Attorney Julia Reitz dropped the burglary charge and is now under public pressure to do the same with the resisting charge.

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Correction: in a previous version of this article it was stated that Barbera Kessel called for Police Chief R.T. Finney's resignation at last Tuesday's Champaign City Council Meeting.  She did not.  This has been corrected in the text of the article.

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Update

  • As of November 4, the updated section of this article reflects CPD Spokeswoman Rene Dunn's response to my inquiry with regards to the new Use of Force Policy. 

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  • Police Spokesperson Rene Dunn was kind enough to email me a PDF of the CPD's semester report for their and Unit 4's SRO program.  This report contains the demographic breakdown of students who have been involved in incidents with their SRO.