Carbondale Police Face Criticism

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By Fanna Haile-Selassie
By Randy Livingston

CARBONDALE -- Comments by the Jackson County State's Attorney are stirring debate about public trust in the Carbondale Police Department.

At a meeting this month, Mike Carr called for an evaluation of the department's leadership. He believes a number of high profile cases have led to distrust of the police. 

If you ask residents in northeast Carbondale their perception of the police, they bring up incidents like SWAT team raids on homes.
 
"You can't come out in riot gear into a community," says Jackson County resident Darryl Backstrom.
 
He says there's a long history of distrust between many minority communities and police, not just in Carbondale.
 
"In order to trust someone, you have to know who they are," explains Backstrom. "And the people only get to know the police department when they're knocking down their doors, when they're arresting them."
 
The difference now is distrust of the Carbondale police seems to be spreading further than just one segment of the city's population.
 
It's the result of several high-profile cases going unsolved, like the 2011 death of Molly Young, where many suspected her then boyfriend, Carbondale dispatcher Richard Minton. The mysterious death of SIU student Pravin Varughese in February. And the 2011 theft of the the police chief's gun, which was later used in a murder.
 
"Public perception is important for your department," says Carr.
 
The bad perception led the state's attorney to speak out at the last meeting of the Carbondale Human Relations Commission.
 
"Wouldn't it be nice to have a police department, when they said something about an investigation that the community trusted it," Carr said  to commissioners.
 
Carr says the distrust affects his job too. Witnesses won't come forward, making cases weaker. He says he has faith and trust in the Carbondale PD, but perception is reality and it's up to the department's leaders to fix it.
 
"I think the community members would like to see more involvement from the chief and involvement going into their neighborhoods," says Carr.
 
12-year-old J'von Watson and his aunt Latosha Mathews agree with Carr, insisting they only see police when there's a problem.
 
"Some police just need to come by, see how other people are doing," says Watson. "Stop, see how they're feeling. See if anything has been wrong in the neighborhood. Just talk to people."
 
Chief Jody O'Guinn says that's easier said than done. There's already a requirement for officers to get out into the community, but time is limited.
 
"When you have the amount of officers that we have responding to 70,000 plus calls for service per year, it leaves little time for officers to be able to get out and interact as I would like them to on a personal basis," explains O'Guinn.
 
O'Guinn doesn't believe the distrust is warranted. He insists he was the victim of a burglary when his gun went missing, State Police investigated the Molly Young case, not Carbondale. And he says his officers put all their efforts into finding Pravin Varughese.  O'Guinn says when the department is silent about a case, the public misconstrues it as hiding a nefarious agenda.
 
"There are a lot of conspiracy theorists out there who believe that there's something else going on that there's not. It's popular to do that."
 
Ultimately, the Carbondale city manager and council have the authority to force any changes, if warranted, but leaders have varying positions on the problem.
 
"This has been an issue for decades; it's not anything new," says Carbondale Mayor Don Monty.
 
Human Relations Chair Jerrold Hennrich says, "The goal of the police department is to serve and to protect, and a lot of the perception now is that they just arrest and harass."
 
Hennrich says the commission will be making some recommendations to the Carbondale City Council next month on how the police department can foster better relations with the community.
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