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Friday, May 16, 2003 02:20 pm

Cop Out 4

Community speaks, police department leaks, Harms keeps his day job, pot calls kettle black

Springfield Police Department Chief John Harris answers questions at the special City Council meeting on the Renatta Frazier case earlier this month.
Ginny Lee

Last Saturday morning, at Union Baptist Church, the crowd ebbed and flowed, some arriving late, others leaving early, but always with the people slightly outnumbering chairs, forcing neighbors to choose between sitting next to a stranger or leaning against a wall. Hosted by Unity in the Community, a relatively new group of activists headed by Michael Williams, the meeting focused on concerns about the Springfield Police Department.

Two ideas dominated the agenda: One was the notion of a civilian review board, which Mayor Karen Hasara has pledged to consider. But equally important to this crowd was the desire to send a message to Husch & Eppenbarger, the Peoria law firm hired by the City of Springfield to investigate the handling of the Renatta Frazier case as well as Springfield Police Lieutenant Rickey Davis's allegation that members of the department's internal affairs staff were spying on him.

All in all, it was like watching 130 cooks fret over one giant kettle of soup, some jockeying to turn the fire up, others wanting to keep the temperature at a polite simmer. Williams worked as referee.

"Take vengeance out of our hearts," he suggested as the meeting got under way. "Learn to forgive and forget."

One of the first speakers was Carl Madison, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He chose the word "tragedy" to describe SPD's handling of Frazier's case.

Frazier--a black rookie officer--was accused last fall of failing to prevent the rape of another officer's daughter. Illinois Times discovered that, in fact, the rape had occurred before Frazier was dispatched to the scene.

"We are outraged," Madison said. "This is an abomination."

Williams' brother, Roy Williams, urged the city to "take the roof off" SPD and allow the Peoria investigators to examine the entire department, not just the incidents involving Frazier and Davis. "If it's not investigated properly, it's wasted money," he said. "Investigating per problem is expensive and unfair to the community."

UIS professor Larry Golden, a former member of the mayor's task force on race relations, agreed. "The problems in SPD go far beyond specific incidents and complaints," he said. "They go to history and traditions."

Opinions differed on whether the $15,000 price tag (more would take consent of the City Council) is too little or too much to pay for the investigation. One citizen pointed out that four attorneys working for a minimum of $100 an hour would blow through $15,000 in short order.

"If [Mayor Hasara] paid me $15,000, I could tell her what the problem is," Michael Williams said, as the audience applauded. "We really don't believe she needs to spend $15,000 to find out what's going on in her police department. She already knows. We already know."

Frank Kunz, one of three aldermen to attend the meeting, admitted the Peoria law firm's investigation would have little real effect on SPD. "You guys might as well forget this investigation," he said. "Nothing's going to change until April or May [when Hasara leaves office]. This is a company town, and the only company in this town is politics."

Citizens in attendance also warned each other that a civilian review board is not necessarily a cure for SPD's problems. Such boards have varying degrees of authority depending on who is appointed and whether panel members have power to discipline officers or merely "recommend" corrective action.

Kunz again provided a reality check, promising to introduce a resolution calling for a citizen review board at the next council meeting, but reminding the crowd that it takes six votes and several readings for a resolution to pass. "This we'll be lucky to get done before the first of the year," he said.

Buff Carmichael, editor of the gay paper Prairie Flame, proposed combining the two ideas, suggesting that aldermen appoint citizens to a review panel, which could then conduct the same investigation now assigned to the Peoria law firm.

One speaker urging the crowd to keep the heat on was Courtney Cox, the attorney for Frazier and the African-American officers' group Black Guardians, who have filed a complaint of race discrimination against SPD. In an emotional but well-crafted speech worthy of a political candidate for some office, Cox pleaded with the crowd to remain supportive of the ten black officers still on the Springfield police force. "These valiant officers have held the line. They need your help," Cox said.

"You have powerful forces arrayed against you," Cox said, adding that he had met these forces face to face. "But you have the most powerful weapon--truth."

Careful not to condemn the entire department, Cox essentially called for the departure of Chief John Harris and his immediate underlings. "Not everybody on that police force is against you. Not every person on that police force is a bad person. But there's a handful in power," Cox said, "and they've got to go."

The one known mayoral candidate in attendance, Don Hickman, was invited to the microphone. He urged the police chief to step aside at least temporarily. "I don't see how this investigation can go on with him there," Hickman said. Hickman further promised that if elected mayor he will replace Harris and make the police department inspector general--currently accountable directly to the chief of police--accountable instead to the mayor.

Williams tried to defend Chief Harris. "I honestly believe the chief is a decent person," he said. "But he did a bad thing and he should have to pay for it."

Plumbing problems at SPD

The most interesting statement made at Saturday's meeting, though, came right off the bat, out of the mouth of NAACP president Carl Madison: "We met with Springfield Police Department on three occasions, and on all three we were led to believe that [Frazier's] actions could have prevented harm to a citizen of Springfield," Madison said.

Madison is now so offended by the entire saga that he has invited the public to attend tonight's executive board meeting of the NAACP (6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Bicentennial Room of the Lincoln Library), when it will vote on whether or not to publicly ask for the chief's resignation.

Madison met with Chief John Harris in November 2001 and in January and March of this year to discuss the Frazier case. In each of these three meetings, Harris told Madison that Frazier was the target of three internal affairs investigations, including one in which the black rookie officer's "actions could have caused a Springfield citizen to be harmed."

Sometime between the first and second meeting, this inaccurate version of events was leaked to the State Journal-Register, which then printed it almost 20 times between January 4 and September 11.

Earlier this month Harris told a special meeting of the Springfield City Council that he had no idea this version was inaccurate until sometime this year. "I can't give you the exact date, but it was in review of the internal affairs files," he said, under questioning by Alderman Frank Kunz.

But at all three of Madison's meetings on this topic, another high-ranking official was present who certainly should have known the facts of the rape case. Madison says Assistant Chief William Pittman sat in on all three sessions. Pittman--who was accused by outspoken black lieutenant Rickey Davis of committing a hate crime for yelling obscenities at him--was, until January, head of the criminal investigations unit, the very division that would have been investigating the rape.

So how could the chief of police--and possibly the assistant chief in charge of criminal investigations--be so grossly misinformed for so many months about such a sensitive and highly publicized subject?

Unfortunately, Illinois Times can provide no answers. Pittman did not return phone calls. Likewise, through SPD's public information officer, Sergeant Kevin Keen, the chief declined to speak. Keen then relayed our specific questions to the chief, and called back with this response:

"His reply to your inquiry was basically that the topic of discussion during those private meetings is not public to subject review, that any meeting he has with an individual privately in his office remains private and not open to the public. That's his stance on your question," Keen said.

We have a feeling the chief actually meant that the meetings are not subject to public review, but we wouldn't want to misquote the voicemail tape.

Luckily, our questions seem to get transmitted to other news organizations with much better connections. Within hours of our inquiry, Madison says he received a call from the State Journal-Register's police reporter, Sarah Antonacci, who told him that her sources at SPD informed her of his meetings with Harris and our questions concerning those meetings.

After what Madison describes as a "two-minute conversation" with Antonacci, the State Journal-Register was able to publish a front-page story recounting the details of the meetings.

Keen says he did not tip the State Journal-Register. The only other SPD official who knew about our line of questioning was Chief Harris, who insists such meetings were private and should not be made public.


Which reminds us of the nagging question: Who leaked the original erroneous story to the State Journal-Register way back in January? Chief Harris told City Council members that this leak must have come from "people that are not official members" of his agency. "Official information comes out of my office or our spokesperson, and that was not leaked," he said.

Madison recalls that on the eve of the first story, he got a call from Antonacci, who told him she had heard he was involved in the case and wanted to give him a chance to comment. So whoever leaked the tainted info to Antonacci also knew of Madison's involvement.

Madison recalls one other interesting anecdote from his meetings with Harris. The chief made it clear to him that if any of the allegations in the three internal investigations against Frazier proved true, "'that speaks right to the integrity of the officer and we will terminate.' He told us, 'We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard,'" Madison recalls. And then he laughs.

Your tax dollars at work

Lieutenant Mark Harms apparently isn't losing much sleep over his reassignment from internal affairs to street lieutenant. The transfer--described by the mayor's office as discipline for being caught red-handed on video exchanging a high-five during a break in his interrogation of Renatta Frazier--was simply from one daytime shift to another daytime shift.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Rickey Davis continues working the graveyard shift. Davis recently discovered internal affairs assistant chief Mitzi Vasconcelles (Harms' high-five partner) and Lieutenant Pat Fogleman, also of internal affairs, cruising slowly past his location in a rental car at 3 a.m., hiding their faces from him. Davis's complaint accused both Vasconcelles and Fogleman of spying on him. They said they were just out checking on a tip concerning a bar 18 blocks away that had been closed for two hours.

It's possible that Harms was assigned to the same tip; he had a rental car for that same night. No word on the results of his investigation.

Dept. of Rumor and Innuendo

You know those mysterious "other things" you keep hearing that the department has on Frazier, those things that Hasara is so anxious to see revealed in court? Makes you think there's a body buried in the Frazier family fridge or something?

Well, we hear it's this: Somebody says the Fraziers falsified a loan application. When asked about it, Renatta Frazier says this is news to her. She recounts every loan she recollects--student loans, a credit card, and a personal bank loan for a few thousand dollars in 1994. She remembers the paperwork she assembled for each of them. She remembers having to clear a debt with a collection agency in order to pass her background check. But she doesn't remember anyone ever suggesting she had falsified a loan application.

"So they think I wrote something false?" she asks. "Now that is funny."

Not to mention ironic.

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