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Local police aim to prevent racial harassment during pandemic

BLOOMINGTON (WEEK) - The Bloomington-Normal NAACP held a virtual town hall Thursday night to discuss COVID-19 related issues when it comes to law enforcement and the African-American community.

Specifically, one of the questions organization members asked of area police chiefs is the handling of calls reporting "suspicious" activity when African-Americans wear mandated masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The police chief in Bloomington said his department is enacting a "hands-off" approach how officers handle complaints suspicious wearing COVID-19 masks and hoodies.

Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath, Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner, and Illinois State University Police Chief Aaron Woodruff all said Thursday night they've investigated no incidents of harassment against African-Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Donath said he's been discussing a policy change with his assistant chiefs.

"We're going to take a more "hands-off" approach on that situation, so people aren't using us as a tool for their own types of issues they may have," said Donath.

'If we can clearly identify there's nothing suspicious, we're not making contact with that person because it makes us look bad, and makes that person feel like they're being harassed or picked on. It doesn't win for anybody," the chief said.

Donath and Bleichner reported a sharp increase in domestic violence cases during the coronavirus outbreak. In Normal, domestic violence calls are up 25 percent, while Bloomington has seen a 30 percent rise. In fact, Donath said there were 52 calls in Bloomington last week, the highest weekly amount so far this year, and for all of 2019.

NAACP leaders said they are troubled that of the 197 people with confirmed COVID-19 cases in McLean County, 53 of them or 27 percent are African-Americans, even though they make up just eight percent of the population.

Reasons for the disparity, according to local NAACP President Linda Foster, include inadequate health care, unhealthy food options, and a lack of fairness in the economy and criminal justice.

Howard Packowitz

Kaitlin Pearson

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