Out of the Blue
Alan Jones, the new head of the Springfield police union, isn't a member of the old guard.
After more than a decade as a Springfield police officer, Alan Jones has accumulated his fair share of war stories. One involves a man who owned a cache of weapons and a violent temper. When Jones went into the man’s garage to retrieve the weapons, he discovered that the man owned a pit bull, too.
But in Jones’ version of this tale, the villain isn’t the man with the vicious dog and the illegal weapons; it’s the sign Jones and his fellow officers found when they returned to the police station at the end of that harrowing shift. Posted on the municipal employment-opportunities board was a notice announcing an opening for a painter’s apprentice’s helper, with a starting wage of $18 per hour.
“Not the painter. Not the apprentice. The apprentice’s helper was getting 18 bucks an hour — and we were getting closer to $12,” Jones recalls.
That fable dates back 11 years, to when Jones was just a rookie cop. In those days, he took an interest in working conditions, schedules, wages, and benefits, but like many of the rank-and-file, he never bothered to get deeply involved with the patrol officers’ union — the organization that deals with employment issues. To Jones, the Policemen’s Benevolent and Protective Agency Unit 5 — generally called “the Benevolent” — seemed too political and cliquish, with leadership drawn from a pool of carefully groomed candidates.
Jones became a somewhat vocal critic of the Benevolent board, but he resisted other cops’ suggestions that he run for a post. “I wasn’t as active as I could’ve been or, perhaps, should have been,” he says now.
Then, in the fall of 2004, Jones lost a promotion that he felt he’d deserved. When he turned to the Benevolent for help, the executive board refused to endorse his grievance, telling him that the association lacked legal standing on the issue. Jones fought back, filing a complaint of unfair labor practices against his own union.
In August, when the PBPA’s biannual elections rolled around, Jones ran for president — and won, by a vote of 138-111. The man he defeated, Sgt. Bob Markovic, was not just the incumbent but also the protégé of the PBPA’s previous president and current chief of police, Don Kliment. The major issue driving the election: the perceived close bonds among Markovic, Kliment, and the union’s longtime attorney, Ron Stone.
“[Officers] were concerned that their friendship might’ve been too great, and thus we weren’t getting all the right things, because they were giving and taking behind our backs,” says one patrolman who supported Jones candidacy, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Kliment objects, saying he had arguments with both Markovic and Stone, though they were usually about disciplinary matters rather than contractual issues.
“Myself and my staff always tried to work with the Benevolent board to resolve disputes before they became grievances. If that’s perceived as somehow the union board being close to the chief, then we’re guilty,” Kliment says. “I hope to establish the same type of relationship with this board that I’ve had with the previous board.” Markovic declined to comment for this story.
Jones’ victory signals a significant shift among the ranks of Springfield’s street cops at a time when the department appears headed for a sea change. The union contract with the city of Springfield expires in February, and a new deal must be negotiated. On March 30, Kliment will reach retirement age and could step down from his position as chief.
The department is also under scrutiny with the recent criminal indictment of major-case Detective Paul Carpenter, the firings of Carpenter and his former partner, Detective Jim Graham, and an Illinois State Police investigation alleging that four high-ranking officers failed to supervise the two detectives.
At the same time, a dizzying array of pending lawsuits pit various police officers against the city. Two cases filed by African-American officers allege racial discrimination. Two other lawsuits filed by white officers allege reverse racial discrimination; Jones himself is the plaintiff in one of these cases.
Another officer, who asked to have his name kept confidential, says that Jones exudes both inexperience and enthusiasm — a mixture that makes the old guard suspicious and the newer officers optimistic.
“The experienced people in the union think he’s going to get into stuff way over his head,” the officer says. “The younger guys think he’s gonna open up a lot of cans of worms.”
The popular theory on how Jones became union president has less to do with who he is than with who he’s not.
In a department where many officers have fathers, brothers, or uncles on the job, Jones has no relatives in Springfield, having moved here from Chicago in 1981, fresh out of the U.S. Marine Corps, to be near his wife’s family.
When he was hired by the SPD in 1995, after years spent working at a medical lab and in retail management, he was the oldest member of his “coming on” class by a good eight years. He’s now 46.
Whereas other officers aspire to the detective bureau, undercover work or management, Jones is the poster boy for patrol officers. Among day-shift officers, he currently ranks first in number of arrests and third in number of citations. Between straight duty, overtime, and off-duty jobs (at the Lawrence Education Center, Poplar Place, K’s Merchandise, and Hickory Point Bank), he spends as much as 70 hours a week in uniform.
“I have to admit: I love to work,” he says. “I think this is one of the most honorable professions there is. You go out every day and risk your life, and you’re not ever going to make a lot of money at it. It’s more of a calling, really, than just a job.”
In the beginning, he was something of a cowboy, winning several honors for his courageous antics. In 1998, he received the department’s Porter Williams award for heroism — or, as he calls it, the “medal for not getting killed when I should have” — after chasing down a robber. He was at his doctor’s office, getting an allergy shot, when he looked out the window and saw a purse-snatching in progress. Forgetting about the needle in his arm, he jumped up, ran outside, and wrestled the would-be robber into submission.
That same month, he took a weapon away from a suspect who appeared poised to shoot at him or the buddy who answered the call with him. “He had his K-9 partner in one hand, his gun in the other, and I threw him a loaded .357. I think he should’ve got the medal,” Jones says.
For the past five years, Jones has been performing a different sort of duty, shepherding new recruits as a field-training officer. He relinquished that responsibility last month.
In 2004, he came close to making sergeant. The promotion list had expired, but a new one had not been certified when a black officer, Ralph Harris, asked the civil-service commission to extend the previous list. A group of 20 patrol officers — including then-PBPA president Markovic — went to court in an attempt to block the extension. They lost their case and subsequent appeal, and the department promoted the next three people on the list — two white officers and then Harris. But Jones, who was next on the list after Harris, was not promoted, even though two more sergeants’ positions were vacant.
When he asked the union to pursue a grievance, the board refused, noting that the department is not obligated to fill vacant slots and claiming the PBPA wouldn’t have standing to sue. Jones was disappointed.
“This was my first experience with the bargaining unit where I asked for help, and to have it come back as ‘We don’t have standing,’ I was kind of shocked. Shocked and surprised,” he says. “In retrospect, I think they felt they were powerless for whatever reason. . . . I think they have standing on anything that affects the membership. Whether they could’ve won a grievance or not, I don’t know.”
Stone, the attorney who has represented the police union for the past 16 years, stands by his decision not to pursue Jones’ case, even though he now knows it has jeopardized his relationship with a lucrative client. “There were no contract provisions that dealt with promotional practices . . . and no past-practice record on how fast or even whether the department had to fill vacancies, so there didn’t appear to be much that we could do,” he says.
Jones eventually filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Springfield, claiming that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his race. The case has survived the city’s motion to dismiss and is now in the preliminary stages of discovery.
Jones’ attorney, James Baker, says that his client’s suit addresses issues separate from whether the PBPA should have taken the case. “There was no reason why, when [SPD] reached down to select Ralph Harris, they couldn’t reach down and select Alan Jones,” Baker says. “It’s a question of whether blacks had been more favorably treated when it came to promoting off the eligibility roster.”
The one thing it doesn’t mean, Jones says, is that he is racist. “You know what? Ralph was in front of me on the list. He deserved to get promoted. He earned it. That’s all there is to it. I don’t have any problems with Ralph at all, or anybody else that got promoted,” Jones says. “We were in disagreement — the city and I — as to what was right and what wasn’t.”
Harris, who has a racial-discrimination lawsuit against the city, declined, on the advice of his attorney, to comment.
The sergeant-list slight was perhaps a final straw for Jones’ relationship with the Benevolent’s then-president Markovic.
“If things had been different perhaps in my relationship with Bob, there’s a possibility I would’ve never run against him,” Jones says. “He and I had significant disagreements over different things that we never really resolved.”
The issue on which the election hinged was who would provide legal representation for the union. Jones and his supporters wanted the local union to consider hiring the legal team from the statewide PBPA organization at a flat rate of $25 per officer per month. Markovic wouldn’t even permit the three-member legal team to make its pitch to the membership.
“Bob was so against letting them talk that it made people suspicious or feel like they weren’t trusted to make decisions on their own,” Jones says.
A patrol officer who doesn’t want to be named points to Markovic’s stubbornness as the reason he voted against the incumbent. “They flat-out refused to allow the state [PBPA] to come in and talk to the membership body,” he says. “The board wouldn’t even allow a vote on whether to let them speak to the membership.”
Ironically, Jones now says he empathizes with Markovic after getting the chance to work with Stone. “Seeing firsthand the things he does, I understand Bob’s loyalty to him,” Jones says. “I had no idea what all he did and the depth of his knowledge. That was something I’ve learned since coming into office.”
Still, Jones plans to invite the state PBPA to present its proposal in time for the membership to choose between Stone and PBPA before negotiations begin on the new contract.
“Ron’s a professional,” Jones says, “and, as a professional, he’s going to know that we’ve got to look at all our options.”
Jones may also find police chief Kliment more approachable than he expected. “There’s two ways you can resolve issues,” Kliment says. “You can be adversarial — and there’s been a history of that in the department previously — or both sides can sit down and try to reach a decision that’s amicable to both sides. I would prefer the latter.”
Although the issue of legal representation is most important, it’s not the only topic on Jones’ mental agenda. He hopes the new contract will include a schedule change to “five-three” — five nine-hour days followed by three days off — a concept he discussed with Kliment and Mayor Tim Davlin last week. He also wants to institute a new corporal rank, to provide a pay boost for field-training officers who aren’t yet sergeants, and establish a life-saving award that can be presented the day after a critical incident instead of being delayed until the union’s annual awards luncheon.
Beyond that list, he’s got a plethora of fuzzy good intentions, such as “have everybody really working toward presenting some of their ideas” and “be more coordinated in our efforts working toward common goals.”
Before he gets to those, though, he will have to survive all the crises currently confronting the beleaguered department.
“Right now, I have kind of mixed emotions. This is kinda neat, and I hope that I can live up to expectations, especially with everything that’s going on,” he says.
“On the other hand, it’s kinda like ‘Oh my God, what did I get into here?’ ”
Contact Dusty Rhodes at firstname.lastname@example.org.