Smile Politely

We have questions about private security patrolling Downtown Champaign

The City of Champaign is facing a shortage of police officers, and it is looking to use private security officers to fill the void. Citing increased safety issues in Downtown Champaign in recent years, the city issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for private security firms to provide up to four officers, three nights a week in Downtown Champaign from May 1st through the end of the year. (At time of publishing, the RFP was closed, and therefore not publicly available on the City of Champaign website.) We have some questions about this idea.

What we know

The officers would be on duty from Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.  According to police spokesman Joe Lamberson, they would serve as “eyes and ears” and address “safety and nuisance concerns” before they escalate into larger issues. Some offenses he cited to The News-Gazette were “loud music and alcohol consumption in city parking lots and the public way, along with a handful of more concerning events along the fringe of the downtown area.” In 2021, there were two instances — near Stix Bar and Esquire — when escalating disputes led to shootings.

Lamberson also said the RFP was partially due to a direct request from business owners (he did not specify which business owners). In a conversation with Ed Bond on the WDWS Morning Show, Mayor Deb Feinen indicated that bar owners have also complained about patrons bringing open alcohol into their establishments. She affirmed Bond’s statement that the presence of the security officers would make people more comfortable coming Downtown. 

The RFP specifies officers will have body-worn cameras, wear uniforms, be unarmed and/or have “less-lethal options,” patrol in vehicles and on foot, provide daily and incident-based reporting, and provide for a citizen complaint process.

What we want to know

We have concerns about private security officers patrolling Downtown Champaign. While the measure is being spun as a way to make the area more welcoming for patrons, and a place where people feel comfortable spending time, we are left wondering, welcoming for whom? Comfortable for whom? How will the presence of these private security officers make that happen? There are a lot of questions that need answers. Some, in no particular order:

  • What are “less-lethal” options for officers to use against citizens?
  • At what point will they be authorized to use these options?
  • What sort of steps will be taken to diffuse and address safety concerns?
  • Who will dispatch the officers to these incidents? Business owners? City officials?
  • Can the security officers detain someone?
  • Where exactly will officers be stationed? 
  • Who will they report to?
  • Who will assess and respond to citizen complaints?
  • What are citizens’ legal protections in interactions with these officers?
  • How much will this cost?
  • Is there data on the effectiveness of utilizing private security and a decrease in public “nuisance” issues?

How did we get here?

We’ve been beating the drum of the need for more arts and cultural development in Downtown Champaign for a while now, most recently when considering how the city could best utilize America Rescue Plan funding. Over the past several years, and the loss of many cultural and entertainment venues (The Art Theater, The Highdive/The Accord/51 Main, Mike and Molly’s, Cowboy Monkey, the Orpheum, Figure One, Indi Go/Gallery 217…to name a few), there is little to do besides eat and drink, with much emphasis on the latter after 10 p.m. Neil Street Plaza park seemed like a step in the right direction of creating a downtown space for gathering and programming that could appeal to all ages, and it has gone nowhere. The Art Theater stands empty. Friday Night Live is a wonderful seasonal community event, but it’s over by 8 p.m. It’s unsurprising that a mid-sized downtown area with more than a dozen bars open late, and nothing else, is seeing gatherings of intoxicated people causing problems. 

What are the short and long term solutions to these problems?

Will adding more “policing” to Downtown Champaign make it “safer?” What does “safer” mean? As with gun violence, short term solutions can only go so far in addressing the problem. Security and policing is often reactive rather than proactive. How might the city invest in Downtown Champaign in a way that will encourage a “rich and diverse array of programming, offerings, happenings, access, and literally round the clock, year round engagement,” that will bring people out and keep them engaged?

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, Mara Thacker.

Top photo by Alyssa Buckley.

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