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Night of the Hunters

Yet another division has arisen between the Champaign Police Department and the citizenry of Champaign. Over the summer, a young man was stopped for jaywalking after leaving a bar. He was mouthy. For his sins, he was pepper-sprayed and, perhaps, choked. I say "perhaps" because, after viewing the video of the incident, it is unclear that he was in fact choked. Regardless, it was a rough time. It's doubtful either the police officer or the young man made a new friend that night.

The incident has only now come to light because, well, it's all a bit confusing. I've read the articles in the local paper about what happened, and the best I can make out is that the suspect's attorney only recently became aware of what had exactly happened on the night in question, viewed the video of it, and then showed it to the State's Attorney, who subsequently dropped the charges. The matter was then turned over to the Illinois State Police for review. The ISP determined that the officer appeared to act within the policy guidelines of the Champaign Police Department. City officials now want the matter looked into by the Feds. A hot-blooded debate is being had in newspaper comments sections, on local blogs, on Twitter, and at local churches. The community is, once again, boiling over.

Not to be too academic, but what is happening in Champaign is indicative of a greater issue society as-a-whole seems to have, and that is block-blaming and group configuration. These are part of being human, it seems, but I wish we'd work on understanding it a bit more. It's a mental/emotional disease wherein folks take isolated incidents and blame an entire group. They also use lone figures to symbolize a greater whole. Both practices are fraught with peril.

Group configuration has its pros and cons. Sports teams, for example. How often do people rally around a particular team, often because of geography? Someone from Champaign is typically an Illini fan. Someone from St. Louis very likely supports the Cardinals. A Chicagoan probably likes the White Sox, or, if they're into sadomasochism, the Cubs. And when these teams win a game, or are having a good season, you'll often see the fans walking around elated, almost as if they were the ones who had been on the field playing the game. Most of the time, this is ok. But it can get out of hand.

This seems to happen whenever a flare-up between police and community occurs. Some folks will rally behind the community member's team, while others will rally around the police department, as though it's some sort of championship game, and we have to choose either/or. But it isn't like that. A possibly mis-treated person doesn't -- and shouldn't -- represent an entire community (or minority), and a possibly rogue police officer doesn't -- and shouldn't -- represent an entire police force. Yet, we seem to want to have our teams. We just have to get behind one team or the other. Unfortunate. And counter-productive.

And what of block-blaming? Perhaps a handful of police officers, over the course of time, cross the line, and then some community members come down on the entire police force like a ton of bricks. Why? What does that solve? Likewise, some folks assume the role of police apologist, and paint anyone stopped by the police in a broad brush stroke as 'probable criminal who had it coming,' and then makes an across-the-board statement along the lines of "I support the CPD." Ok. Good for you. Most of us do. But that doesn't meant there aren't some bad apples.

To folks on both sides of this issue, who have stirred-up veritable hornets' nests, I say this: Get over yourselves. Seriously. We need to quite picking sides, and find a way for our voices to be heard without always attacking an entire swath of people. The Champaign Police Department is, on the whole, great. I've had mostly good encounters with them. So have a lot of others. Some haven't. They aren't pariahs. They aren't liars. Some of them aren't even criminal. If they have a complaint, they have a right to be heard. But their advocates need to be aware that, sometimes, you catch more flies with honey.


  1. Where does institutional prejudice and misconduct fit into this? We both remember the town hall where the prior mayor encouraged police to "Remember what was said here, and think twice when anyone here calls on the police to help".

    CPD was terrible to me as a youth, on not one or two, but many occasions. There was a institutional culture of bigotry and covering for that bigotry.

    It may be much better now, but I think of this again with the PSU situation. Sure, there are lone, brutal child assaulters, but there is also a culture of enabling and complying with such behavior that permeates our society.

    Anyway, just a question of nuance. I'm glad to find your great blog again. I lost its path when you switched URLs and I couldn't get in for a minute.

  2. A few weeks ago, right as the Calvin Miller incident was playing out, I listened to an interview with criminologist David Kennedy ( He describes a disconnect between the community and the police that captures this shouting match we're having right now.

    "KENNEDY: We have two worlds in the United States. You know, there's the world of the long, national crime decline that everybody's celebrating, and there's the world that I've been working in for 25 years now, which is a little bit better than it was in 1985 but still, just to say it again, almost inconceivably awful in terms of many of its dimensions.

    And nobody likes to say this stuff out loud because it's impolitic, but the facts are the facts. And the facts are that you get this kind of drug activity and violence only in historically distressed, minority neighborhoods. And it is far worse in poor, distressed African-American neighborhoods than it is anywhere else.

    [...] And quite naturally, law enforcement pays an awful lot of attention to those neighborhoods. And over the generations that this has been going on, they have come to a conclusion. And the fundamental conclusion is: that community is corrupt; the guys on the corner are sociopaths, they don't care if they live or if they die; their parents are corrupt or they would be keeping them off the corners.

    There's no core left. There's no moral standing left. There's no heart left. And the shorthand that you get from cops when you talk about these communities, is that they look at you, and they say there is no community. There's no community left. And that's what they really think.

    DAVIES: All right, let's go to the second group you describe, which is the community that shares this turf with the drug dealers and the police, that is to say, the largely law-abiding community.

    KENNEDY: So that's - when we say the community, that's what we mean. We mean the good people in these neighborhoods. They look at the cops, and they think two things. So, the mild version is they're not helping - and they won't, and they never have, and we've given up on them.

    The stronger version is dominant in the public discourse in those neighborhoods, and many, many people believe it. And it is that law enforcement, and especially the police, are part of a deliberate, racist conspiracy by the outside, acted out through law enforcement, to do damage to the community. And that what's going on is not just happening because the cops can't stop it, it is happening because cops want it, are behind it and are often active racial conspirators in doing deliberate damage, and that the drugs could not be there if the cops didn't allow it. That the drugs probably are there because the cops are part of bringing them in. That - as many people had heard, and most white folks just dismiss it - that crack was invented by the CIA and imported into the neighborhoods. And that at root, all of this - the drug enforcement, the gang enforcement, the presence of law enforcement, all the black men getting arrested - is a continuation of America's historical attack on black communities, going back to the founding of the nation, in which the majority oppressed the minority under color of law.

    DAVIES: It's interesting, as you write, you don't buy this. You agree with the cops, that this is not what's happening, that they're not primarily motivated by racial animus, but it's not crazy for people in the community to see it that way.

    KENNEDY: It is both of those terrible things. It is not true, and it is, unfortunately, extraordinarily plausible."

    There's something missing in the conversation our community is having right now. I agree that cheerleading for your team under these circumstances doesn't move the ball forward, so to speak. ;)

  3. Xian: What the former mayor said was crass and rude, no doubt. And, I'm sorry you had so many bad encounters with the CPD. I did not. That's part of the problem with anecdotal evidence. You could get two different perceptions from two members of a minority community, perhaps neither one proving to be valid. I still think that it's wrong to judge people as a block. History has shown where that can lead to.

    Todd: Very interesting. Thank you for posting this. It saddens me to read what comes across as a hardened bitterness that the job has brought about in someone. :-/


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