Urbana Officer Writes Book About History of Urbana Police Department

The Blue & the GoldUrbana Police Sgt. Matt Rivers isn’t afraid of an intimidating project.

Several years ago, he decided to research his family tree. An amateur at genealogy, he wound up finding his father’s half-sister, whom his father had never met.

More recently, Rivers decided that he and his fellow officers needed to know more about the long history of the Urbana Police Department, which dates back in 1855 when Urbana was first incorporated as a city.

“People had looked into things before, but I realized current officers didn’t know anything about the Police Department,” said Rivers, a nine-year Urbana Police veteran. “I decided I wanted to know more.”

After four years of effort, Rivers has completed that research, in the form of a self-published book, “The Blue & The Gold, A History of the Urbana Police Department, 1855-1976.”

The book ends in 1976 because retired Urbana Officer Jim Page wrote a memoir, “From Disco to Digital,” that covered the years from 1977-2004. Page’s 2015 book wound up mentioning that Rivers was working on his own book, which Rivers said “pushed me” into committing fully to the project.

“It took me a couple hundred hours,” Rivers said. “As I was writing it, it was every free minute in September and October 2016.”

Rivers wound up interviewing dozens of retired officers, children of officers and community members. He also did extensive research, relying on the University of Illinois Digital Newspaper Archives and the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library.

Lori Weidert, the wife of Urbana firefighter Clint Weidert, provided invaluable assistance as an editor.

The book’s title has a couple of different meanings. The blue refers to active police officers and the gold to retired officers. Urbana officers are also currently divided into two teams, blue and gold, that work on different days of the week. Urbana police uniforms are also blue and gold.

An easy and delightful read, the 169-page book focuses on a variety of historical periods or episodes, each usually covering a page or two.

Probably the most tense period detailed in the book was the late spring of 1970.

On April 29 of that year, a Champaign police officer shot and killed Edgar Hoults following an extensive car chase and then a foot chase. Hoults, who was African-American, was shot in the back. He had attracted the officers’ attention by speeding. In ensuing days of protest and rioting, several people wound up getting shot and several businesses were firebombed, including Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company at Lincoln Square Mall.

Then, on May 4, 1970, came the Kent State University shootings, where four college students were killed and nine wounded when Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on protesting anti-war students.

Locally, It was like pouring gas on an already raging fire. On Tuesday, May 5, 2,000 University of Illinois faculty and students called for a three-day strike, called “The Week of Dissent,” to protest the war, the Kent State shootings and the death of Hoults.

Hundreds of windows at UI buildings would be shattered in protest and the mayor of Champaign wound up declaring a state of emergency and established an 8 p.m. curfew, which included the closure of all bars and gas stations. The National Guard was called in. The protests continued until May 9, when over 100 people were arrested on the UI quad.

“What a month or summer that must have been,” Rivers said. “It’s almost like we couldn’t help but get sucked into it, and honestly, our chiefs didn’t really know what to do.”

Rivers’ book also details a Nov. 4, 1968, incident at the Champaign County Jail, when three inmates escaped in a vehicle with Champaign County Sheriff Russell Chaney as a hostage before being captured near Fourth and Green streets in Champaign following a crash. The sheriff suffered only minor facial injuries but he had a gun pointed at his head until the suspects gave up, when an Urbana officer fired a warning shot in the air.

A more positive memory of that era were three “The Pigs Vs. The Freaks” basketball games, held annually between 1970-72, that raised money for good causes.

Rivers said he found many interesting facts through his research, including that police officers were not paid well up until about the 1980s, with many officers forced to hold down two jobs to make ends meet.

“They also worked all the time, some of them probably seven days a week," he said.

Rivers said he found that the Urbana Police Department tended to rise and fall on the strengths and weaknesses of the police chief.

Another surprise: the extent to which Urbana police were engaged with local youth, in positive ways, during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Perhaps the best example was the creation of the Urbana Junior Police in October 1950, which saw 300 youth aged 8 to 14 sign up. The kids would get a shirt, badge and hat for completing a 30-day “probationary” period and they performed various civic duties, including walking children to school and manning crosswalks. The program would continue into the 1970s.

Though times change, Rivers said he came to realize through his research that police work doesn’t differ all that much from a century ago. “It’s disturbances, it’s crimes, the behavior is the same,” he said.

Rivers has printed 50 of his hard-cover books, with many color pictures. The books sell for $33 and will be available soon at the Urbana Free Library. Those who want to order a book should contact Rivers via email at riversmc@urbanaillinois.us.

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