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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006 07:03 pm

Reluctant witness

How pervasive is racism at the Springfield Police Department? Just ask the citys top African-American cop.

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Rob Williams (in the white T-shirt) has always been a member of the Black Guardians Association, though he’s never held a leadership role in the group.
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP
To a city fighting charges of racism, Rob Williams looked like the perfect defense witness. His career at the Springfield Police Department has been unblemished, his rise through the ranks meteoric. A deputy chief after less than 20 years on the job, he is the highest-ranking African-American at SPD, in charge of internal affairs, training and recruiting. What reason could he possibly have to complain?

Besides, Williams has no history of grumbling. Unlike some of his fellow black officers, he has never tried to agitate or litigate his way up the ladder. He hasn’t appeared at any press conferences, filed any grievances or sought any special treatment. In 2003, when the Black Guardians Association filed a federal lawsuit against SPD claiming racial discrimination, Williams signed on, in solidarity, but didn’t spell out any specific claims. Consequently, he was dismissed from the case.

However, during the discovery phase, assistant corporation counsel Frank Martinez called him as a witness. Questioning at his deposition — the transcript of which is just over 200 pages long — unearthed an assortment of racial offenses ranging from devilish indignities to physical danger.

What’s most unsettling about Williams’ testimony, though, may not be the tales themselves but rather the unavoidable conclusion that Williams could have told more. Over and over, he diverted attorneys’ queries by explaining his personal policy of handling, then “burying” all unpleasant encounters.

“If I felt that you’ve done me wrong, I was always the type of individual that I would come up to you, talk to you specifically about what happened, and if me and you shook on it man to man, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of it and it was over,” Williams testified. “Anyone that I’ve had any of those incidents with, I like to believe that when we shook on it that was the end of it. I bear no anger toward them or nothing else.”

He doesn’t just forgive; he also forgets. Twice during questioning, Williams unapologetically reminded the Black Guardians’ attorney, Courtney Cox, why he couldn’t be more precise in his answers: “You’re going to see a pattern throughout this deposition that when something very unfavorable happens, I kind of block it out,” Williams testified. Then later: “A lot of times, I don’t remember because I don’t want to.”

Surprised to learn that his deposition had been provided to Illinois Times, Williams declined to discuss his testimony for the record, except to ask that we not use the names of other officers he had mentioned in any negative light (some sections had been previously redacted, by court order). Despite the bad memories pried from him by attorneys, Williams spoke of his passion for his profession:

“I’ve always felt that if done correctly there’s not a more noble profession than law enforcement,” he said.

His deposition also exposed a genuine affection for SPD.

Rob Williams (in the white T-shirt) has always been a member of the Black Guardians Association, though he’s never held a leadership role in the group.
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP
“It has its problems,” Williams testified, “but I love the Springfield Police Department. Yeah, I can say that.”

The feeling is apparently mutual. Sgt. Jeff Bivens, vice-president of the Policemen’s Benevolent and Protective Agency Unit 5, says Williams remains well-liked despite his job running internal affairs — the division that disciplines officers.

“Rob is the only person I know that’s held that position he’s in that still is respected by the men. They think he’s fair-minded,” Bivens says.

He was Williams’ partner for about three years when they were both assigned to patrol subsidized housing projects on the midnight shift, and they are still close friends today. Bivens, who is white, says Williams hasn’t ever focused on race. “Rob is this person that’s never made us feel like he’s different,” Bivens says. “He’s never pushed that he’s different. He’s just Rob.”

In his deposition, Williams recalled the phone call he got almost 20 years ago, telling him that he would be hired by SPD. It was April 1, and Williams, figuring that the caller was his sister playing a prank on him, smarted off to the woman on the other end of the phone. Once his hiring became official, he said, he went to every black cop on the force to thank them for paving the way and promise that he would never embarrass them.

He prided himself on going beyond the minimum, doing more than he had to do. “Most of the things that I did around the Springfield Police Department, I adhered to a much higher standard,” Williams testified. “On a lot of calls, where the guy says, ‘Oh, you don’t have to write paper on that,’ I’m the type of guy who — I wrote paper on it . . . . Even if we came down with a written directive that ‘This is optional . . . you can take a shortcut,’ I was one, I didn’t like shortcuts.”

He joined the all-black Springfield Ethical Police Society believing that it was a social organization, a “cultural exchange” that offered the chance to swap stories about police work with people who shared similar experiences. He joined the patrol officers’ union — the Benevolent — because membership was a mandatory part of employment. According to his deposition, he decided early in his career that he should not attend PBPA functions.

“I could tell that when I was there guys couldn’t be themselves for whatever reason . . . .” he testified. “The guys need to have an opportunity to just vent and say whatever or do whatever, and sometimes I felt like when I was there they couldn’t be themselves.” Later in the deposition, under cross-examination, Williams admitted that he avoided social gatherings with white officers because the word “nigger” was used so frequently.

At the old police station on East Jefferson Street, the word was harder to avoid. The main bathroom, Williams testified, was decorated with racist graffiti.

“In fact, it got so bad that they got tired of painting the stalls . . . . The solution was just put a chalkboard up so hopefully they would write on the chalkboard, but even then they would write outside the chalkboard.”

He once saw a tag where the extra tissue was kept that was a creative variation on the evergreen “Don’t forget to wipe your ass.” This tag said, “Don’t forget to wipe your Harris,” referring to a black officer named Ralph Harris.

Another black officer frequently named in the graffiti was Don Schluter, who was promoted from sergeant to commander to assistant deputy chief the year Williams joined SPD. When Cox asked Williams whether it would be fair to say that some white officers felt that no matter how high an officer’s rank, he was still a “nigger,” Williams agreed.

“I’m beginning to think you read some of the things on the bathroom wall,” he said.

Martinez asked whether he had alerted supervisors, and Williams admitted he didn’t. “You know, it was so prevalent I knew that they knew. In fact,” Williams said, “when they got the chalkboard, I knew that they knew. That’s what you do.”

Williams made his perspective on the N-word known during his first year on the job.

A patrolman working the midnight shift, he was one of a half-dozen-or-so officers sent to remove a disorderly patron from the American Legion Hall on the East Side — the same facility where a mentally ill man had died after a scuffle with police a few years earlier. It was, he testified, a “rather minor call” and easily handled. But as the officers gathered outside afterward, one repeatedly used the word “nigger.”

Williams said, “He used it about two or three times: ‘I thought those niggers wanted to fight.’ And then he looked at me and he almost paralyzes himself.”

Despite recognizing that officer’s senior status (in years, not rank), Williams decided that he couldn’t let the offense pass without comment.

“[A]s far as I was concerned, not one person in that facility had done anything wrong other than one individual . . . but because of the color of their skin, he had lumped them all in together as being hostile toward him . . . .” Williams testified. “So if he could arbitrarily address all of them because of the color of their skin that they were hostile to him, then he could have easily drew that inference as far as me, too, in another situation.”

The officer said that he didn’t mean Williams — “You’re blue; you’re one of us.” But Williams told him that he shouldn’t apply the word to the patrons of the bar. Eventually the officer agreed and said that it wouldn’t happen again. “I buried it,” Williams testified, “and I feel bad even bringing it up now.”

The second incident Williams recounted in his deposition occurred, ironically, while he was on a special detail watching for bigots.

It was in the early 1990s, at a time when local synagogues were being vandalized. SPD began “sitting on” the synagogues to watch for trouble. One night, Williams was assigned to watch Temple Israel. Unbeknownst to SPD, deputies from the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department were watching the same synagogue.

Williams, wearing his old coal-mining jacket, was in an undercover van known as a “Victor car.” The sheriff’s deputies apparently deemed him suspicious and sent a small assault team to rush his vehicle.

“I could see about a thousand lights,” he recalled in his deposition. “Out in between the lights all I can see is actually the barrels of guns. They’re pointing at me. The only word that I hear seven or eight times is again the word ‘nigger.’ I can’t even make a move to go get my radio. I’m not crazy.”

Suddenly, he said, “in between the N-words,” he heard one of the deputies say his name: “Hey, I think that’s Bobby Williams. Is that you, Rob?” It was a man Williams had known since his school days.

Contacted last week, the county employee confirmed that the incident had occurred but insisted that none of the deputies had used racist language. “That wouldn’t have sat too well with me,” he says.

But Williams’ wife, Sherry Williams, says that her husband was so shaken, he told her about it the night it happened.

“That wasn’t some afterthought; that scared him,” she says. “I remember vividly the whole incident at the synagogue because I remember feeling a pain in my chest as I went through the what-ifs. He could’ve been dead. It took a long time for that feeling to go away.”

Despite the obvious danger of that episode, Williams apologized for mentioning it, telling Martinez that he brought it up only because he had reported it to his supervisor at SPD. The supervisor wanted to “put this on paper,” then backed off when Williams insisted on handling the situation in his usual way. Williams’ efforts failed, though: “I tried to find out who from the county would have been responsible for it. They never did give me that information . . . .”

Under cross-examination by Cox, Williams volunteered that he didn’t think that the racist language was his supervisor’s main concern: “I think he was more upset about them, for lack of a better word in law-enforcement terms, jumping our call, being over there in the city operating the detail without telling them.”

In 1999, the members of the Springfield Ethical Police Society changed the group’s name to the Black Guardians Association and elected Rickey Davis president. Williams remained a member of the group, although he was never active enough to be elected to any office. He was by then a lieutenant.

The group began calling attention to the low percentage of African-American officers on the department (about 5 percent, compared with a 13 percent minority population). In 2000, the NAACP filed a lawsuit designed to increase diversity in both the police and fire departments. Between these two groups, the issue received frequent media coverage. In this heated environment, Williams had the one encounter he could not resolve with his shake-and-bury, forgive-and-forget policy.

 He was a watch lieutenant, assigned to the third shift. One night, the deputy chief issued a request for a specific task to be done. Williams doesn’t recall what that task was, except that it “definitely has to be done.” So Williams made sure to notify the day-shift lieutenant because the task was meant for him.

The next morning, however, Williams got a call from the deputy chief, asking him to come into the office. Williams told his supervisor that he couldn’t come in; he needed to stay home with his baby daughter, who was sick. He had no one else to take care of her — his wife was out of town, and his mother was ill.

“And [the deputy chief] specifically said, ‘Hey, I’m ordering you. I’m ordering all of you to get down here,’ ” Williams testified.

Not wanting to be insubordinate, Williams complied. But when he arrived at his supervisor’s office, he realized that he was the only lieutenant who had been summoned. When the deputy chief explained that one of the other lieutenants had a child-care problem, Williams got angry.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute — [second watch lieutenant] has a small child? I got a small child, too, and mine is sick. I specifically told you she was sick.’”

The ensuing argument was apparently so frustrating that simply recounting it all these years later got the normally unflappable Williams upset. In the deposition, his testimony went on for eight pages, listing his efforts to get his boss to give him some plausible explanation for why he had been singled out.

“Make me know that this ain’t because of what’s going on in the [news]paper or what’s been said,” Williams told the deputy chief. “Make me understand why you called me down here and didn’t call the rest of [the watch lieutenants] down here.”

During the exchange, Williams made a conscious effort to ignore some of his supervisor’s remarks for fear that he might react in a way that would get him in trouble.

“I actually had to force myself not to hear his entire conversation, or I probably wouldn’t have been a lieutenant,” Williams said. “I would have been demoted or been charged criminally. He had me that upset.”

Martinez asked several times whether the supervisor had made any racial remarks, and Williams said no, that the man had simply refused to answer his questions.

“At that time, racial concerns were at the top of the department,” he testified. “So I asked him point-blank. He refused to answer.”

Finally the deputy chief pulled rank.

“I was trying to do like I had always done,” Williams testified. “If I felt like something wasn’t right, I always asked a man, man to man, ‘Hey, why did you do that?’ you know, and he reminded me of our unequal status and said he didn’t have to answer it.”

Williams, however, testified that he knew that this episode constituted racial discrimination: “I felt that with every fiber of my being.”

Another factor in the racial tension at SPD during this time was Renatta Frazier. Hired in 2000, she was the first black female recruit in more than a decade, and Williams soon heard grumbling about her.

In his deposition, Williams recalled that he walked into the sergeants’ area one day and found several officers discussing Frazier’s difficulties with compass directions. The consensus among the sergeants was that Frazier had been hired only because she was black. “I said, hey, if she’s having some problems . . . it’s no different than anybody else,” Williams recalled. “Everybody was saying different things that she supposedly wasn’t up to par with.”

Later a lieutenant came into his office and told him, “You’re wrong on this one.” Williams sent him back to the sergeants with the message that Frazier should be treated the same as any other officer.

“If there’s something that needs to be disciplined, we’ll put discipline in her file. If there’s something that needs to be addressed through retraining, we’ll retrain,” he said.    

When he tried to observe Frazier at work, he discovered that she had been sent on a recruiting trip. He went up the chain of command to request that she stop recruiting and spend more time honing her basic skills. He also realized that Frazier’s immediate supervisors apparently hadn’t made that effort.

“I found it odd that these other sergeants, the first-line supervisors who would have observed that conduct directly, hadn’t done the same thing,” he testified.

Instead, he says, he heard more gossip about Frazier from people who weren’t in a position to know.

“They came to me saying, ‘You know, she didn’t meet qualifications.’ I said oh really? How do you know? And they couldn’t answer,” Williams testified. “I said you know — and I don’t remember who it was, but they would have had to have been at least a sergeant — I said specifically, if you don’t know, those are the types of things you shouldn’t be spreading. You’re spreading a rumor.”

In January 2002, the State Journal-Register picked up another, more salacious rumor about Frazier — that she had failed to respond properly to a 911 call, resulting in the rape of another police officer’s daughter. An investigation by Illinois Times revealed that the girl had been raped before she called 911 [see “Cop out,” Oct. 31, 2002], and, in 2004, the city paid Frazier and her attorney a settlement amounting to almost $1 million.

In deposition, Martinez questioned Williams about the now-infamous 911 call and whether Frazier should have gotten out of her squad car. Williams said that she probably should have but that, on the basis of his experience — reviewing internal-affairs files every day — a substantial percentage of current officers would have handled the call in the same way Frazier did.

“Forty percent would have stayed in that car,” he said.

The Frazier story proved that the department brass had sat silent for almost a year while the media spread false allegations about one of its own officers. Once the truth came out, Williams said that “individual officers of all ranks” approached him to apologize.

“Never anything specific,” Williams said, “more generic about some of the things that have happened on the Springfield Police Department. I told them it’s not necessary.”

The Frazier story had another, more tangible effect on Williams: It convinced him that he should accept a promotion to what was then called assistant chief (now deputy chief) — an offer, he testified, that he had twice rejected.

The same Illinois Times article that broke the story contained freeze-frame pictures taken from a videotape of Frazier’s internal-affairs interview, in which two investigators shared a congratulatory hand slap as Frazier left the room for a break. The tape was subsequently broadcast on television news.

Williams said he thought that the high-five showed such a lack of balance and a loss of objectivity, he decided to accept a promotion to take charge of internal affairs. “After I saw what I saw on that clip, there was no doubt in my mind,” he said. “I felt like the credibility of the whole agency was at stake.”

But under cross-examination from Cox, Williams agreed that even this promotion was a racial gesture.

Cox: Wouldn’t it be fair to say that [then-Chief John] Harris was under siege at that time?

Williams: I believe so.

Cox: And that siege was as a result of the Renatta Frazier matter and the black officers’ speaking out very vocally about racial problems in the department?

Williams: Yes.

Cox: And do you think that his asking you to become a member of the management team was at least in part in response to the siege that was going on with respect to the racial problems in the department at that time?

Williams: Yes.

The bulk of Williams’ deposition focused on events that occurred before Mayor Tim Davlin and SPD Chief Don Kliment took their respective offices. But Cox questioned Williams extensively about claims made by Davlin’s former chief of staff, Letitia Dewith-Anderson, and about Kliment’s termination of another black police recruit, Chris Wallace.

Dewith-Anderson resigned from her position in January 2004. Deposed in August, a month after Williams, she claimed that Davlin told her he didn’t want to meet with more than three African-Americans at one time — a claim that Davlin has repeatedly and strenuously denied.

But Williams confirmed Dewith-Anderson’s general claim: “I don’t specifically remember the number, but it was a very low number and I purposely tried to block it out.”

He also testified that he believed that Wallace’s firing — a few weeks after Dewith-Anderson’s resignation — was racially tinged. “It pains me to say it, but, yeah, I think he was dismissed because he was black,” Williams said.

Wallace was clearly struggling to master his job; his probationary period had been extended several times, once at William’s request. But Williams believed the recruit would succeed. “I thought that he was responding to training. I thought that he was salvageable,” Williams testified.

When he examined Wallace’s paperwork, he noticed problems with ratings given by field-training officers, with scores that didn’t match written observations. “People were making all kinds of statements, but when I went and reviewed his things, they didn’t match up,” Williams said. “I thought that some of the low marks were extremely harsh, and they didn’t match what he had actually done.”

For example, probationary officers can earn points for “self-initiated field activity,” also known as SIFA. Williams noticed that Wallace didn’t get credited for SIFA. “So, again, it wasn’t balanced,” Williams said.

He was not included in the meeting in which Kliment made the decision to fire Wallace. As deputy chief over training, Williams felt that he had a right to be present.

“I definitely would have been in support of retaining Chris Wallace in his capacity as a probationary police officer,” Williams said.

When he confronted Kliment, they resolved the conflict in Williams’ traditional way — with an apology and a handshake.

“Chief Kliment told me, for lack of a better word, ‘I’ve just been appointed chief. You should have been here. I forgot.’ Don’t sound like a great excuse,” Williams testified. “[He] looked me the eye and said, ‘That was it; it won’t happen again; I’m sorry. It was a mistake you weren’t at the meeting.’

“Like anything else, as far as I’m concerned, it was over with . . . . Those may look like they’re on opposite poles, with me saying two different things, but I had no reason to doubt him until he gives me a reason to doubt him.”

Martinez, the city’s attorney, declined to comment when asked why he chose to depose Williams and what effect his testimony might have on the city’s case.

At her husband’s request, Sherry Williams read over his deposition. It brought back memories of incidents she had also preferred to forget, as well as memories of incidents never mentioned in the document.

There was the man who, just after Williams was promoted to sergeant, refused to train him on the computer process he needed to know before closing cases. Williams surreptitiously watched the man pressing keys — F12, click, click — and would sneak into the office early each morning to try replicating the keystrokes. At home, Sherry says, he pestered her with “a thousand questions” about computers, trying to figure out how to do his new job.

When Williams arrived at work one day and found the training officer gone on vacation for two weeks, he was able to do the job. It’s a story with a happy ending, but one of innumerable indignities Sherry says she has watched her husband suppress.

“Do I think it’s right? It’s definitely not healthy, because it causes him to internalize,” she says. “Who knows what the injuries are? It creates stress. He may have learned some coping mechanism or some way to disguise it, but stress manifests itself in all kinds of physical ailments. It does something to your mind.

“But I know that it works for him,” she says. “It has allowed him the ability to maintain his sanity, so I can only see it as right.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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