Shooting video withheld
City says officer hasn't been interviewed
Springfield police are refusing to release video footage that captured the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man by an officer last month.
In declining to release footage of the Jan. 23 shooting, the city’s legal department said that Officer John Shea has not yet spoken with investigators about the killing of Daniel Rogers. However, a spokesman for Illinois State Police, which is conducting the investigation, says that Shea has been interviewed by investigators.
Police have said that Shea shot Rogers during an altercation while the officer was attempting to arrest Rogers. Rogers had a history of mental illness, and Shea, who police say suffered serious facial injuries during the struggle, was responding to a report of Rogers throwing objects at cars.
Police have said that Shea was wearing a body camera. Under state law, records, including video footage, cannot be withheld unless police can demonstrate that disclosure would somehow hamper an investigation, interfere with a legal proceeding, endanger someone or otherwise result in real harm. The fact that an investigation is pending is not, by itself, sufficient to justify withholding a video.
“The release of any such (video) recordings at such an early stage of the investigatory process where the involved officer has not even been interviewed yet would obstruct the current investigation,” Marquita L. Trotter, assistant corporation counsel, wrote in a Wednesday letter to Illinois Times that was emailed today.
“Unacceptable,” said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Nebraska who is considered a leading expert in the use of force by police. "The emerging nationwide standard calls for officers involved in the use of force to be interviewed by the ends of their shifts."
The U.S. Department of Justice in recent consent decrees with police departments has required officers who use deadly force to be interviewed by the ends of their shifts, Walker said.
“We know the problems with memory,” Walker said. “People forget things, forget the details. If you interview someone immediately, there might be some fact that would prompt an immediate follow-up investigation, as in ‘I saw two people across the street who might be potential witnesses.’ The longer you wait, the more prone they might be to forget that, so that evidence would be lost.”
The city’s claim that Shea has not been interviewed was diametrically opposed by a statement from Matthew Boerwinkle, a state police spokesman.
“The interview of Springfield PD Officer John Shea was completed,” Boerwinkle wrote in an email to Illinois Times.
In addition to asking for video footage, Illinois Times also asked for copies of any so-called Garrity statements that Shea made after the shooting of Rogers or the killing of William Geiser, a mentally ill man whom Shea shot in 2008. Garrity statements are interviews of officers often conducted by departments to determine whether shootings are justified, or in cases where wrongdoing has been alleged. The statements can be used to determine whether discipline is warranted. The department said that it has no such statements from Shea in either shooting.
In the Geiser killing, Shea and fellow officer Joseph Arnold provided written statements that were included in the city’s response to the newspaper’s request. Geiser was threatening Officer Donald Bivens with a knife when he was killed, according to reports released to the newspaper, and both Shea and Arnold received commendations at the conclusion of an Illinois State Police investigation and a coroner’s inquest that determined that the killing was justified.
Illinois State Police interviewed Arnold and Shea within hours of the Geiser shooting, and reports on those interviews were included in documents released by Springfield police in response to the newspaper’s request. Via their union lawyer, both officers, as well as Bivens, declined to submit to further interviews unless ordered to do so by department brass.
“As we have discussed, our stance is to rest on the reports submitted, in the absence of an order to answer further questions,” attorney Ron Stone wrote in a letter to a state police investigator dated the day after the Geiser shooting.
A mixed history
The newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request to Springfield police included requests for copies of all commendations won by Shea as well as copies of documents pertaining to all complaints against him.
The city’s response showed that Shea has won praise from the public several times for solving crimes and for his thoughtful handling of stressful situations. In 2004, a citizen wrote a letter to the department praising Shea for how he handled an alarm call at her house, checking all doors and windows before going inside her home and checking for intruders, going to far as to look under beds and inside closets.
“She was truly grateful for your kind and professional attitude,” then Chief Donald Kliment wrote in a letter of commendation placed in Shea’s personnel file.
The following year, Shea and Arnold were commended by superiors for spotting a pair of bank robbery suspects in a waiting room at Memorial Medical Center while they were taking a mentally ill person to the hospital. Their keen eyes resulted in an arrest, according to a letter of praise from Kliment. Later that same year, a supervisor told the chief that Shea, while assigned to Lanphier High School, was doing a good job of handling fights, drug crimes, trespassing incidents and episodes of disorderly conduct.
“I must agree with your supervisor, that your calm and steady demeanor in handling these volatile situations are key factors in resolving them with very minimal, if any, injuries to students, school workers or other individuals involved,” Kliment wrote in a letter of commendation.
Shea also won praise for the way he spoke with civilians during neighborhood crime meetings. In 2011, he and another officer received a letter of commendation for making two arrests at Bridgeview Park, where the officers found more than a pound of marijuana. In 2015, a man whose son was causing a disturbance due to a “psychiatric issue” wrote a letter to the department praising Shea and another officer for good police work.
“(He) said that not only did you treat his son fairly but you were encouraging, helpful, understanding and professional with every member of his family,” Chief Kenny Winslow wrote in a letter of commendation. “Furthermore, (he) stated that because of your help, his son is now properly medicated and has returned to work, resulting in a positive effect on his well being.”
Records released to the newspaper show that Shea has received crisis intervention training aimed at teaching officers how to effectively and safely respond to calls involving mentally ill people.
Along with praise, Shea has also received criticism.
Since 2002, internal affairs has investigated at least 13 complaints against Shea, including at least nine allegations that he used excessive force. No use of force complaint has been sustained, but one resulted in a finding of not sustained, meaning that it could nether be proven nor disproven. Most complaints resulted in exoneration, although internal affairs has twice found that Shea violated department rules and that he twice was either discourteous or did not present a professional image.
A prior shooting
Police were well acquainted with Geiser before he was shot to death on March 8, 2008, according to records released Thursday.
Geiser, 63, had a long history of mental illness. He once maced Springfield firefighters who were trying to get him off the road at the intersection of South Grand Avenue and South Fifth Street, where he was threatening motorists. On another occasion, he barricaded himself inside a room at St. John’s Hospital and threatened security guards with butter knives. He thought aliens had taken over the bodies of politicians. Geiser also had a habit of making phone calls that ranged from irritating to threatening to downright strange.
One month before his fatal encounter with police, he called the Capitol building and told a clerical worker that he wanted Secretary of State Jesse White to set up a meeting between Buckminster Fuller, political blogger Rich Miller and then Gov. Rod Blagojevich, with the goal of getting the governor temporarily removed from office so that he could get training on how to run the state. He made harrassing calls to the Schnuck's supermarket on Chatham Road. Police and the chancellor’s office at University of Illinois Springfield received several bizarre calls in the months leading up to Geiser’s fatal encounter with officers at the Bel-Aire Motel on South Sixth Street, a dilapidated flop house that was demolished in 2015.
Shea, Arnold and Bivens responded to the motel after receiving complaints that Geiser was making incoherent phone calls. He called the county 911 dispatch center several times and UIS police for no good reason. Another call was received by an AT&T operator in Michigan
“This involves national security,” the caller believed to be Geiser said. “It involves the destruction of AT&T headquarters in Texas.”
When the three officers arrived at the motel, Geiser refused to open the door. Come back tomorrow, he said. He also invited police to kick the door down. The motel clerk told police she had no key for the deadbolt lock to the room.
“I wanted to make face-to-face contact with him in order to better assess his mental state and needs,” Shea wrote in a police report. “I wanted to try to talk him into going to the hospital voluntarily for an evaluation.”
A woman in the motel parking lot told Shea that she knew Geiser and could get him to open the door of his second-floor room, but officers would have to stand downstairs in the parking lot where he could see them. She also said that Geiser had told her that he could disable police with hypnosis.
While Shea and Arnold stood in the parking lot where Geiser could see them, Bivens took up a position outside the door, where he couldn’t be seen from inside. Like Shea, Bivens had received crisis intervention training intended to help him deal with mentally ill people. The woman knocked on the door and asked Geiser about getting a hug. When the door opened, Bivens stepped into view.
“(H)e looked at me and shook his head back and forth in a non-verbal manner, indicating ‘no,’” Bivens wrote in a report. “W. Geiser did not say anything and he took his right arm and rapidly brought it directly toward me. In his hand was what appeared to be a knife.”
Geiser began stabbing at Bivens’ neck with a four-inch serrated steak knife. The officer deflected the knife with his left hand, then grabbed the blade. It was, Bivens wrote, a life-or-death struggle.
“He was rapidly thrusting the knife forward and backward trying to cut my neck,” the officer wrote. “His attempt was to insert the knife into my neck, by using a ‘shanking’ technique. By holding the knife sideways, with the serrated edge facing my neck, this technique, once inserted, would sever the main vein located inside my neck. … I believed he had stabbed me in the neck due to the amount of times my fist, which was wrapped around the knife, had been forced into my neck.”
Bivens yelled for help. Shea and Arnold came running upstairs from the parking lot. At first, Shea saw only flailing. He drew his Taser.
“Officer Bivens then yelled in a high pitch shrieking voice, ‘He’s got a fucking knife!’” Shea wrote. “I then saw the flash of the blade in the light and what I thought was blood on Officer Bivens’ finger. Geiser was launching a flurry of punches with the knife turned sideways directly at Officer Bivens’ neck. He had the most angry wild-eyed look on his face.”
Believing that Geiser would kill Bivens, Shea wrote that he switched from Taser to Glock 22. He fired until Geiser went down, a total of three shots. Arnold fired once. And Geiser was dead on the floor. In addition to the steak knife at his side, investigators found an Exacto-style razor knife under his body.
Bivens needed four stitches to close a knife wound to the tip of his left middle finger.
All three officers received medals for bravery.
"The events unfolded into a nightmare," department brass wrote in words of commendation read at the presentation ceremony. "These officers reacted bravely and appropriately to imminent danger."
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.