Will it work in Carbondale?

By Gus Bode

As the City Council begins to explore what type of Human Relations Commission will be and appropriate match for Carbondale, the DAILY EGYPTIAN takes a look at other commissions across the state to see how they could work here

The Carbondale City Council will decide in upcoming months whether a proposed Human Relations Commission charged with addressing racial unease should have legally binding power or the ability to discipline police officers.

Criticism of the city’s plan, which doesn’t include a commission that could subpoena witnesses, levy sanctions or address police complaints, was voiced at a recent council meeting by former co-chair of the SIU/Carbondale Task Force on Race and Community Relations William Norwood.


In an attempt to find out what type of commission would best serve the Carbondale community, the Daily Egyptian looked to other cities in Illinois to see what kind of effects similar commissions are having in their communities.

Civic leaders from Normal, Decatur, Champaign, Urbana and Bloomington say their local Human Relations Commissions are educating the community more than anything. This education, they argue, cuts down on the amount of complaints that they have to deal with.

Jose Garibay, director of the Normal Human Relations Commission, said citizens file complaints that eventually get dismissed, many times against police officers, because no policies or procedures were broken. The education comes, Garibay said, with the citizen learning that the officer’s actions were lawful and the officer finding out what he should have done to avoid the incident.

“Maybe there was no policy determined to be broken, but what led to the complaint could have been handled differently,” Garibay said. “Things like rudeness and gruffness.”

While all five commissions have power to subpoena witnesses and sanction those who violate a person’s civil rights or discriminate in areas of employment, housing or public accommodation, the range of how police complaints are handled varies.

The commission in Normal has the most authority in dealing with police complaints. The seven-member commission, which includes a designated official of Illinois State University’s Student Government Association, was set up in 1969 after complaints surfaced about landlords and employers discriminating against blacks. Along with activists from ISU, black leaders pushed for the creation of a commission to protect the civil rights of Normal’s citizens.

Normal’s commission is unique from other local commissions because it doesn’t investigate complaints, Garibay said. When a person files a complaint, the two sides meet immediately to conciliate their differences. If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, the commission will hold a public hearing and render its decision.


Garibay said the commission has the power to issue fines up to $2,500 or order remedies that could exceed that, such as the payment of back wages.

A commission with punitive powers, such as the one in Normal, is not what City Manager Jeff Doherty says is best for Carbondale. The city has taken a stance against giving Carbondale’s proposed Human Relations Commission subpoena or sanction power because Doherty said it would work against the city’s ultimate goal of mediation and conciliation of complaints that arise.

“By taking an approach where the commission is more punitive in nature, it can lose its effectiveness of bringing people together and working out in a conducive fashion disagreements or various issues that may exist among people within the community,” Doherty said.

The creation of a Human Relations Commission was first suggested by the SIU/Carbondale Task Force on Race and Community Relations last October. The task force was formed after Carbondale Police sprayed more than 80 black SIUC students with Mace at a block party in April 2001. The commission was supposed to be a joint venture, but the University recently backed out of it, leaving the city to create the commission. The University stated it could not give up authority to a commission because it’s funded by the state.

Other members of the task force, besides Norwood, have expressed that the city’s plan works against their goal of improving the way police complaints are handled. Doherty said it’s unrealistic to expect everyone in the community to agree with the city’s plan and that it’s important that the commission not be strictly limited to addressing police complaints.

Doherty said people already have avenues locally through the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners and at the state level with the Illinois Human Rights Commission to appeal his rulings on police complaints.

Vacelia Clark, staff member for the Urbana Human Relations Commission, said the Department of Human Rights, the agency that investigates discrimination, is swamped with complaints, so much so that it takes more than a year for a citizen to receive a resolution to an allegation. Clark said this makes the concept of a local Human Relations Commission all the more important.

Urbana’s Human Relations Commission is comprised of a 10-member body, including a student representative from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which deals primarily with discrimination complaints in housing, employment and public accommodations. While the city’s commission doesn’t investigate police complaints, Clark said plans are being made for a joint citizen oversight group with the City of Champaign.

Clark said police oversight groups are essential to a community because they give citizens a venue to grieve against mistreatment and injustices. She said Carbondale’s civic leaders shouldn’t worry about the negative aspects of a police oversight group, such as people filing frivolous complaints, because the positives, such as protecting the civil rights of citizens, outweigh them.

Decatur’s Human Relations Commission takes an approach similar to what Carbondale has in place to deal with police complaints. Jackie Williams, director of community relations, said Decatur’s commission has no interest in handling police complaints and refers anyone who wants to file them to the Illinois Human Rights Commission. Williams said the city thinks it’s a conflict of interest to have members appointed by the mayor investigating complaints against the city.

Williams said 13 citizens make up Decatur’s commission and that the commission has the power to subpoena witnesses and issue sanctions. Williams said the city strives to accomplish mediation in all cases, and that since the commission was created in 1993, only one case has had to go to the public hearing stage.

“We count it as a failure if we have to go to a public hearing,” Williams said.

The group of citizens that sits on the commission also reflects the diversity of the Decatur community, Williams said. She said Decatur’s commission has goals that are narrow and that many times people want the commission to take on issues it doesn’t have the power to address.

The city of Champaign didn’t have the power to monitor the police three years ago when local allegations of racial profiling surfaced. To address concerns of activists, the Champaign Human Relations Commission took on the task of auditing police complaints. The commission now looks at police complaints annually to look for trends, according to Denise Gordon, assistant to the city manager.

“Say if there’s one particular police officer who has more complaints that are negative or derogatory in his file, then that would draw a red flag. We would then bring that to the attention of the police chief,” Gordon said.

The new power caused the commission to draw criticism from various segments of the community. When statistics showed that racial profiling complaints weren’t as prevalent as some had expected, the commission was accused of covering up the truth and being an arm of the city. Gordon said in the last three years, members of the commission have consistently worked to promote harmony between minorities and police in the community to combat those allegations.

“Perception is everything,” Gordon said. “If I think it’s going on, then in my mind, it’s going on. So you’ve got to do something to let me know that my perception is just that, that it’s not reality.”

The commission also received resistance from the police when it began auditing complaints against officers, Gordon said. But it didn’t take long for high-ranking law enforcement officials to realize members of the commission weren’t there to handcuff them in their duties.

“We have to be careful how we exercise our power, because we’re not here to make enemies,” Gordon. “Yes, we have powers. Have we had to use them? Once, maybe twice in the last 10 years.”

Gordon said the only officers who had any reason to fear the commission were officers “who needed discipline anyway.”

Gordon said the power to subpoena and sanction gives the Champaign Human Relations Commission “more teeth,” but she said it also serves the purpose of instilling credibility with its citizens. What Carbondale needs to do, Gordon said, is evaluate what it’s truly trying to accomplish by forming a Human Relations Commission.

“You must be the change that you wish to see,” Gordon said. “If you’re afraid of what people might think or what they might say, you’ll probably never get the work done you’re trying to do.”