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Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006 06:03 am

Systemic failure

The biggest problem at the SPD: a lack of openness and accountability

I never was a police reporter, but I did write about police matters, especially during my time in Memphis, covering city government. I reported on demands for civilian review, allegations of racism in hiring and promotions, contract disputes about pay and benefits, and corruption.

Tennessee, at least at that time, had a fairly high regard for the public’s right to know, and getting personnel records about a government employee — even a cop — wasn’t a big deal.

For example, when there was a wholesale change in the command staff with a new mayor, I walked over to the city personnel-records office, asked a clerk to pull the folders on each of the ranking officers, and reviewed their work histories and disciplinary records.

Most of the men and women who had risen to the top had some blemishes on their records but nothing terribly shocking. For example, one new member of the command staff once forgot a loaded department shotgun on the trunk of her cruiser; another was dinged for finishing off a beer in the police parking lot before the start of a shift.

Having that kind of information available to the public is the price of being a public servant. When you’re on the job, you are, after all, accountable to your employers. That’s especially true if you carry a badge and a gun — and have the power to take another person’s freedom.

That’s what makes the ongoing saga about two Springfield Police Department detectives so painfully frustrating, because this story has come out in bits and pieces, making it hard to get a clear sense of the scope of the problem.

For almost 20 months, this newspaper has chronicled allegations that Paul Carpenter and Jim Graham, two detectives with the now-disbanded major-case unit, took shortcuts on the job. The allegations of misconduct include submitting false affidavits to obtain search warrants, handling confidential sources improperly, and failing to do required paperwork. Our paper also reported that Carpenter sent a false document to a probation department as a favor to an informant [Dusty Rhodes, “Something doesn’t add up,” March 2]. On Wednesday, Carpenter was booked on charges of wire fraud and official misconduct.

Concerns about their work stretch back many years and are the subject of complaints by criminal-defense lawyers and investigators [see Dusty Rhodes, “Credibility question,” Feb. 24, 2005].

It’s fair to say, though, that Ron Vose, former head of the narcotics unit, is really the one who got the current investigation rolling. I don’t know Vose, but I’ve met him. He strikes me as quiet, methodical, conservative, and credible.

In early 2005, Vose gave SPD Chief Don Kliment a detailed memo, outlining his findings about Carpenter and Graham’s work. Kliment turned the memo over to the Illinois State Police, which completed its investigation this summer.

Illinois Times reporter Dusty Rhodes obtained a copy of the ISP investigation summary and published a story about the findings on Sept. 28 (local broadcasters and the State Journal-Register caught up this week). The document, which outlined misconduct by Carpenter and Graham, also named five ranking SPD officers who, it said, failed to properly supervise the detectives.

For months now, many people assumed that the detectives would be exonerated, that they were just two enthusiastic cops who may have bent a rule or two but always in the interest of getting the bad guy. Those people argued that the controversy was largely the result of a personality dispute or a turf battle between Vose and the detectives — in particular, Graham.

That was certainly the SJ-R’s take in a front-page report in February that said that the investigation grew out of “head-butting” between Graham and Vose and had caused homicides to go unsolved. That conclusion rested, in part, on the word of an unnamed law-enforcement source who said that the internal dispute had “destroyed the ability of the police department to do their job.”

The ISP summary shows just how wrong that assessment was: It turns out that the people who weren’t doing their jobs were the two detectives and their supervisors.

Vose, who resigned in early 2006 and is suing Kliment for retaliation, may not agree with this, but in my view it’s hard to see the summary as anything but a vindication of his findings: Rules, procedures, and even the law were being violated. More disturbing, the summary says that this behavior was countenanced at a supervisory level. In other words, there was a systemic failure at the SPD — a tolerance for playing outside the lines.

I sympathize with Kliment — it must be hard for him to act decisively. First, he has to be sure he knows all the facts. Second, he has to make sure that he doesn’t jeopardize any legal cases. And third, he must act in a manner that restores public confidence while maintaining morale within the ranks. It’s daunting, to be sure — and almost unfair, given that he inherited this problem.

Ultimately, though, we can’t expect one chief, one mayor, or one city council to fix things, because what we have here is endemic to the organization. It’s the culture that needs to change.

And that gets me back to my original point: Rip away the veil of secrecy — and open all personnel records, including disciplinary and internal-affairs investigations — and you have the best possible way of policing the police department.

You see, people tend to behave when they know other people are watching.

Contact Roland Klose at editor@illinoistimes.com.

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