Private security guards begin work in downtown Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) – “It totally caught us off guard. I don’t think we’ve ever experienced anything like this,” patron Jeff Paustian said.

The City of Champaign is taking a new approach to nightlife safety.

“We thought it was a little weird; we asked the bartender ‘what’s going on? Is it a police officer? said boss Davi Rufino.

He was not a policeman.

An unarmed guard entered a downtown bar to make sure people were interacting peacefully and customers had questions.

“I thought, ‘this guy doesn’t look like a police officer,’ I saw the badge and stuff, so I got a little curious,” Rufino said.

The city privately hired four guards and a supervisor from AGB Investigation Services.

In a crime-ridden community with an understaffed police department, they wanted to call for help.

“It’s not a long-term measure, but I think it will have a decent impact this summer, fall and winter,” said Xander Hazel, executive director of the Champaign Center Partnership.

The Champaign Police Department says the goal is to use the new guards to address policing issues, such as people playing music or people carrying alcohol out of restaurants. And it helps free up police time to deal with serious crimes. Plus they just want people to feel safe downtown.

“We appreciate the security as nothing bad happened last night, but it was a bit weird invading space,” Rufino said.

Companies like the Esquire Lounge are thrilled. Last year gunshots caused them to close early.

Esquire Lounge owner Jackie Samson says she’s glad the city is doing something about crime and that anything can help. She says last weekend was better, but it will take time to see results.

If a serious crime is committed, the guards cannot intervene. But, they will wear body cameras and can be witnesses for the police when they arrive.

“Downtown Champaign is a great place for people to gather; it’s very family friendly and there’s lots to see and do,” Hazel said. “We just want to make sure people do it safely.”

Wardens will patrol the area between Washington, University, First and State streets.

Neighborhood Service Department Ambassadors can also help people with different tasks downtown and you can identify them by their orange vests.

David H. Henry