Public safety, city officials engage students at safety forum

CHAMPAIGN — Police chiefs and elected officials from the cities of Champaign and Urbana on Thursday night asked that students and others be actively involved in the safety of the campus community by calling 911 and informing police if they see something suspicious.

The campus safety forum at the Student Dining and Residential Programs building at Ikenberry Commons was organized by the Illinois Student Senate following a Sept. 25 shooting on Green Street. Public safety officials reassured students that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus is a safe one, but the September incident is a strong reminder that no place is immune from gun violence.

“One thing we need to recognize when it comes too gun violence, shooting: It can happen anywhere,” said Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb.

“If something makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck, call 911. That’s what we’re here for,” said University of Illinois Police Chief Jeff Christensen.

Cobb said the incident was a very difficult one to investigate – although security camera footage investigators reviewed after the event showed dozens of people near a fight which precipitated the firing of shots, police only received one call from a concerned bystander. By the time the scene was secured, witnesses to the event had left the area.

“This person was beaten unconscious, right in front of everybody on Green Street,” Cobb said. “It would have been nice if people got involved.”

The beating, which began as a disagreement at a party and spilled out onto the street, is what allegedly prompted Robbie M. Patton, 18, of Champaign, to fire toward a crowd of people, killing one and wounding three others. Those struck by gunfire were passing by and not involved in the events which preceded the shooting.

Patton was arrested Sept. 29, and authorities are preparing the case for trial. Cobb said Champaign Police investigators have identified six of nine people believed to be involved in the beating which preceded the shooting and continue to work the case.

Cobb implored community members to call police if something is going wrong.

“You’ve got to get us engaged and let us come out to assist,” he said.

Champaign City Council member Michael La Due reminded students that the Campustown area is not isolated from the rest of the city. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus is relatively safe, but no area is entirely crime-free or immune from violence.

He said Champaign is a “micro-urban” community – it’s not a small town, but rather a small city.

“You’re not getting away from urban situations here,” La Due said. “They’re just on a smaller scale.”

Various agencies nonetheless continue to work to reduce gun violence. The county’s Street Crimes Task Force — which includes officers from the Champaign, Urbana and University of Illinois police departments and the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office — has been working for months to address gun violence. The task force has already made a number of arrests and removed a significant amount of firearms from the street, presumably preventing other instances of gun violence throughout the city.

Various agencies are also cooperating on the C-U Fresh Start program, which addresses the social issues associated with gun violence.

Officials noted that security cameras from nearby businesses were of great assistance to the investigation. In addition, the University of Illinois Police Department has installed and controls about 1,500 security cameras on university property and plans to install as many as 200 more in the coming year.

The Campustown area remains one of the most densely patrolled areas as far as law enforcement presence. On any given night, four to five police agencies work together to keep the campus area safe.

“We are planning each time we get together to alter the way we respond to situations, the way police officers position themselves,” said Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly. “But a visible police presence is something we always try to provide.”

Officials also offered safety tips for students to follow that can reduce their risk of being targeted by an offender.

Student Body President Ron Lewis facilitated Thursday night’s forum.

“I think the main thing of this experience as a whole is that we all learn” and pass the information on to others, Lewis said.

In addition to Cobb, Christensen, Connolly and La Due, other panelists included Champaign Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen, Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing and Champaign County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Allen Jones.