Reinventing police

Can we do better?

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY BRANDON TURLEY
Illustration by Brandon Turley

On one hand, the status quo looks good.

The federal court docket in Springfield shows few lawsuits alleging police brutality. Crime has gone down during the past decade, according to federal databases compiled with data supplied by local police departments. The number of misdemeanor and traffic cases filed by the state's attorney's office has plummeted in recent years; felony filings during the past decade are essentially flat.

But that's not the whole story.

There are signs of racism within police ranks. Throughout Sangamon County, bad cops have jumped departments while unions have protected problem officers. The price tag for policing here is higher than in comparable areas.

Beyond statistics, there are anecdotes and videos.

The Rev. T. Ray McJunkins, who presides at Union Baptist Church, says that he keeps his insurance card and registration documents in the center console instead of the glove box so he won't have to reach and hunt if he's pulled over – he has papers out and ready so the officer can see his hands at all times. He's had no serious trouble with Springfield police, the pastor says, but he's heard stories, and he's seen bad things elsewhere.

"Springfield, because we're not as large as other cities, people think, 'Oh, it's not here – we've never experienced it,'" McJunkins said. "The reality is, it's huge everywhere."

Protesters say a cop atop an armored vehicle in a garage on Ninth Street pointed a rifle at them during a May 31 peaceful demonstration sparked by the death of George Floyd. A video is inconclusive. One thing is clear.

While protesters chanted, a police SUV appeared and drove slowly over a loudspeaker placed by protesters outside the garage. The woman whose speakers were destroyed didn't file a complaint – she says she's scared of cops and doesn't want to become a target. "I think that the police have a lot of power and that they have the power to do whatever they want and retaliate against me, if they so wish," she says. Last week, she shared the video with Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley, her representative on the city council. Conley says she passed it on to police.

The chief says the department will replace the loudspeaker, but he defends officers. "They left it in the middle of the freaking road and it got ran over," says the chief. "It obviously wasn't intentional."

The woman wants a public apology. It is time, she says, for police to change the way they do business.

Others agree. Some community leaders say we should reconsider how law enforcement works, both to combat misconduct and increase efficacy. City council members have promised action but offered few specifics.

Ideas pitched by reformers here and around the nation range from instituting state licensing for cops to reevaluating law enforcement philosophies to consolidating police agencies.

"We don't believe in defunding the police department," says Teresa Haley, president of both the state and Springfield chapters of the NAACP. "We believe in reforming the police department."

click to enlarge Springfield police chief Kenny WInslow - prepares to scrub graffiti from a sign outside police headquarters on May 31, the same night a police SUV drove over a - loudspeaker belonging to a protester. - The chief says it was inadvertent. - PHOTO BY RACHEL OTWELL
Photo by Rachel Otwell
Springfield police chief Kenny WInslowprepares to scrub graffiti from a sign outside police headquarters on May 31, the same night a police SUV drove over aloudspeaker belonging to a protester.The chief says it was inadvertent.


Racism and misconduct

Racism within ranks of Springfield police has long been an issue.

In 2004, the city paid $850,000 to Renatta Frazier, an African American former officer who sued after she was wrongly accused of failing to prevent a rape and department officials who knew the truth didn't clear her name. In 2010, the city paid $475,000 to settle a lawsuit by former Lt. Rickey Davis after he won a $626,000 jury verdict – he had alleged retaliation after he spoke up about racial issues within the department.

More recently, Winslow this year fired Officer James Foxx after he allegedly used the word "nigga" in a text sent to a fellow officer. The city, which has a history of losing lawsuits filed for failures to disclose internal affairs files, refuses to release the Foxx file. In another case, the department installed surveillance cameras after an African American officer found an altered doll in the department armory. The city has refused to release internal affairs files on the matter, claiming that doing so would reveal investigative techniques. City council members, briefed privately on both cases, haven't objected to secrecy.

Officer Andrew Barnes is on desk duty after recently calling Shawn Gregory and Doris Turner, the city council's only two African American council members, "fucking idiots" in a Facebook post. Barnes posted his message after Gregory and Turner questioned why police were breaking up pop-up parties on the east side but allowing protesters, virtually all white, to demonstrate against state stay-at-home orders issued in response to pandemic.

Winslow says he doesn't think racism is the rule in the ranks. "I don't believe we have a lot of racist cops in our police department," he said.

Former alderman Frank McNeil says that the police department can't police itself. The disciplinary process, he says, needs transparency, including a public database that lists officers and misconduct cases against them. "This is a very restricted club – they protect one another," he says.

While on the city council, McNeil pushed the city to create the Police Community Review Commission, a citizen panel tasked with hearing complaints upon request. The commission has considered few cases since its 2005 formation. McNeil says officers should be required to testify before the commission, which should be given power of subpoena so that it doesn't have to rely on information provided by the department. So far, those ideas haven't gained traction in city hall, where council members have said they'll take a look but haven't committed to change.

Winslow said he believes the review commission is working, but he also notes that it's not part of the police department. "It's not my baby," the chief says.

Even when misconduct seems plain and names are known, problem officers stay on the street. Office Paul Carpenter remains on the Springfield force after being fired and charged with wire fraud and official misconduct in 2006 for falsifying records to make it appear that a snitch had completed court-ordered community service. Criminal charges were dropped, then an arbitrator ordered Carpenter reinstated with back pay. In 2013, the city paid $24,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a couple who said that Carpenter had threatened them and called the husband a "fag" over the PA system of his city car – it started as a neighborhood spat, with the officer upset because someone had flipped off his son. He was suspended for two days. In 2018, Carpenter was voted Officer Of The Quarter by supervisors and peers. Winslow gave him a pin.

Outside Springfield, Sangamon County sheriff's deputy Travis Koester remains employed despite lying in court and tasing a woman who collected a $150,000 settlement after a federal judge opined that his conduct was inexcusable. Jerome residents now are collecting signatures on a petition calling for the village board to fire Tricia Langan, who was given a full-time sergeant's position in April despite a video showing her turning her back inside the Riverton police station when an officer grabbed a DUI suspect by the neck and head-butted him. Langan resigned from the Riverton department after the February incident.

Langan started as a police officer in Athens, where she was married to the police chief and paid $10 an hour. When she was hired in 2004, the Athens department asked that state training requirements be waived, since she'd worked in loss prevention at Kohl's and once had a job as a "telecommunicator" for the Sangamon County sheriff's office, according to her personnel file. The state Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board told the department she had to complete 460 hours of standard training within 18 months. She did, with the city covering $7,440 in training costs.

There's a financial incentive to hire experienced officers, and Jerome isn't the only department that's hired cops who've gotten in trouble elsewhere. In 2013, Southern View paid $40,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who said she was groped by a cop who'd been hired after he resigned from the Springfield Police Department while under investigation for having sex with a prostitute in his patrol car.

"The local municipalities do not have the money to put new hires through the academy," says Grandview Police Chief Tom Hiatt. "So, they would rather hire someone who has training – they will always get hired before an off-the-street applicant. It's seen as a money savings. The training is expensive, the municipality has to pay and when they finish, they get a job with a different department."

After Langan left Athens in 2011, the Carlinville Police Department hired her as a part-time officer, despite a urine drug test that registered dilute, meaning that no conclusions could be drawn. Dilute results typically are the product of someone drinking an excessive amount of water prior to the test. After three years in Carlinville, Langan moved to part-time positions in Buffalo-Mechanicsburg, Southern View, Grandview and Jerome. Riverton hired her as a full-time officer in 2017.

Members of the Jerome village board and board president Mike Lopez have refused comment on Langan. Winslow declined to say what he thinks of the hire. "That's Jerome's decision," the chief says. Leland Grove Police Chief Dan Ryan says that he wouldn't give Langan a job.

"If we hired her, that would really affect the credibility of your police department – if you hire someone like that, it really and truly does," Ryan says. "We don't want to lower our standards."

Some reformers favor state licensing for officers, arguing that the state could pull licenses if officers engage in misconduct and so prevent them from getting jobs at other departments. Ryan supports state licensure, but says key questions haven't been answered.

Standards vary, Ryan says, so a use-of-force violation in one department might not be considered such in a different agency. How would licensing decisions be appealed, and what, if anything, happens if an officer draws scores of complaints that aren't sustained by internal affairs investigators? The latter point is not hypothetical in Sangamon County, where a sheriff's deputy, labeled a "squared away" role model by brass, racked up more than 40 complaints in 13 years before resigning in 2009, when a judge ruled that his internal affairs file was a public record. What if misconduct charges are never brought? Langan has not been charged with a crime or been found guilty of misconduct.

Winslow says his department is working with the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police on ideas for a licensing program. "The bottom line is, a department shouldn't have to hire someone who was fired somewhere else," he says.

Sheriff Jack Campbell says he's open but has doubts about state licensure. He points out that the state Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board already must certify officers – would licensure be redundant? Kelly Griffith, the board's general counsel, says that the board certifies officers based on whether they have required training and cannot revoke certification absent conviction for a felony or certain misdemeanors.

"I'm reluctant, but I'm willing to look at it," Campbell says. "I think we should be open to anything."

"This is the perfect time"

While the sheriff says he'll consider change, that doesn't mean he's in a rush.

Acceptable crime rates and a paucity of pending brutality lawsuits suggest local cops are doing a good job, Campbell says. "We're always looking at different models, and we're also not in a hurry to change anything if we're not seeing problems."

Reformers elsewhere are slicing police budgets and redirecting money. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed cutting the police department's $6 billion operating budget by $1 billion and canceling $500 million in capital programs. School districts in Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon and Washington state have ended programs that station officers in schools. Teachers unions in Chicago and elsewhere are calling for districts to get police out of schools: Do we need officers to protect students from intruders and keep order within?

If nothing else, cops are costly security officers. The Springfield School District pays more than $216,000 a year to station an officer in each of the district's three high schools; the district pays salaries, the department covers benefits, including health insurance and pension costs. Board member Judith Johnson says she'd consider removing cops if replacements sufficiently qualified to provide security could be found.

Winslow and the city council have embraced community policing, which means paying officers to do more than chase 911 calls. Cops have gone shopping with kids and picked up trash left from pop-up parties in parks and parking lots. The city employs eight neighborhood police officers, plus a supervising sergeant, who meet with residents and neighborhood associations to identify issues and develop solutions. The program has won praise from neighborhood associations and the city council – Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner says she'd like to see 20 NPO's instead of eight. Salaries for the NPOs now employed, plus a sergeant, total $740,000. The department also employs a homeless outreach officer assigned to find solutions that don't involve handcuffs and a jail cell – that's another $80,000 in salary.

Winslow defends community policing – it's important, he says, for police to have positive interactions with the public, and NPOs do the sort of problem solving that's encouraged throughout the ranks. "It's about building relationships and letting people see them as a person instead of a badge and a uniform," the chief says.

It's progressive stuff, but other cities have gone further.

In 1989, police in Eugene, Oregon, created a partnership with a nonprofit health clinic that responds to calls involving the homeless, mentally ill and addicted. Clinic employees each receive 500 hours of crisis training – a cop in Illinois hits streets after 560 hours of training that includes courses on how to drive a police car and aim a gun. In 2018, medics and social workers with the clinic, which serves a population base twice the size of Springfield, responded to 23,000 calls. It's better than sending cops, according to police.

"We're the police, we're not a taxi or an ambulance," Sgt. Rick Lawrence, a police department coordinator for the program, told the Eugene Register-Guard last year. According to the newspaper, the clinic responds to 17% of the Eugene Police Department's calls for service while consuming slightly more than 1% of the department's budget.

In Springfield, cops remain first responders. Since 2002, three mentally ill people have been killed by city officers, most recently in 2017, when Daniel Rogers fought while being handcuffed – he'd been throwing sticks and rocks and dirt into the road in front of his house. The state has cut services for the mentally ill. A planned homeless center with attached medical services imploded last year. The city ranks last in the state in landing federal grants for homeless programs.

"I think our police department is overwhelmed," Haley says. "If police don't have the skills to deal with domestic violence, homelessness, substance abuse, then reallocate money to programs specifically designed to help."

Springfield's single homeless outreach officer works with NPOs to address homeless issues, Winslow says. The police, he says, are tackling problems rooted in social issues because there's no one else. "There's no social services out there doing anything," Winslow. "Basically, the police department had to take the lead on it."

"Talk is cheap"

Efficiency and effectiveness aren't new ideas.

In 2013, a subcommittee of the Sangamon County Citizens Efficiency Commission, an entity created by voters that disappeared in 2014, published a report recommending a close look at consolidating agencies and perhaps creating a single metropolitan police force for the entire county. Money was the driver.

With 23 county and municipal police departments, the per-capita cost of cops in Sangamon County totaled $274 seven years ago, according to the subcommittee. Per capita costs in Peoria County were $225, costs in McLean County were $200 and costs in Champaign County were $175. Today, Springfield, according to municipal budgets, has more cops per resident than other central Illinois towns, including Decatur, Bloomington-Normal, Peoria and Champaign. The Springfield City Council has authorized one officer for every 461 residents. Decatur's budget allows one cop for every 488 citizens, Peoria's budget has money for one officer for every 530 residents, Bloomington-Normal grants one officer for every 626 residents and Champaign allows one officer per 693 residents.Winslow says staffing comparisons between cities aren't apt. Springfield, he says, is more isolated than communities with fewer cops per capita and so needs more officers in case of major events. Crime rates and socioeconomic factors vary, he says, as do policing methods. "What's your department's philosophy?" the chief asks. "If you're going to be a reactionary department, you don't need as many people."

A single police agency to cover the entire county would save money, Campbell allows.

"For taxpayers, it would be more efficient," Campbell said. "It would take a lot of negotiating and input from citizens and, quite frankly, I don't see it happening anytime soon."

Nor does Bob Gray, who chaired the subcommittee that recommended consolidation. "The unions would raise hell, everyone would raise hell," he says. Small departments say they offer a level of service bigger agencies can't match – in Jerome, police tell residents to let them know they'll be out of town, and officers will check on their house regularly while they're gone.

"I would say that one large metro police department over the county and the municipal departments would be a monstrous mistake," says Hiatt, the Grandview police chief. "You would have less person-to-person contact."

"Those are just poor excuses," Gray counters. With the nation in economic distress and police in the spotlight, now is the time to talk, he says. "It's a good time to have a good dialogue, a good conversation: Are there better ways?" Gray says.

But time for change may be short.

"To me, talk is cheap," Haley says. "People will listen to us when the issue is hot. But the NAACP and Black Lives Matter cannot let this issue die. We have to keep it in the forefront while the fire is hot."

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

Illinois Times has provided readers with independent journalism for more than 40 years, from news and politics to arts and culture.

Now more than ever, we’re asking for your support to continue providing our community with real news that everyone can access, free of charge.

We’re also offering a home delivery option as an added convenience for friends of the paper.

Click here to subscribe, or simply show your support for Illinois Times.

Comments (1)

Add a comment

Add a Comment