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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 05:07 am

Ralph!

The man who would be Springfield's next police chief

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Ralph Caldwell
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE
Untitled Document The June 1 announcement arrived on the standard city of Springfield press release stationery with the word “NEWS” splashed across the corner in 48 point italics. The content, though, was strictly old hat: Mayor Tim Davlin had tapped Ralph Caldwell to be chief of the Springfield Police Department. Davlin’s decision surprised no one. For the past three years Caldwell has served as second-in-command to Chief Don Kliment, whose retirement becomes effective June 21. For Caldwell, the title might as well have been “chief in training”; he’s never hidden his ambitions for the top spot or his friendship with the mayor (they often spend weekends riding Harley-Davidsons with a group of friends).
The recent announcement implied that Caldwell — a 27-year veteran with a master’s degree and diplomas from the FBI National Academy and Northwestern University’s School of Police Staff and Command Program — had ranked second among the six finalists when Kliment got the nod. In truth, Caldwell’s been bound for chiefdom his entire career. George Judd, a former SPD officer who rose as high as deputy chief and is now chief of the Springfield Park District Police, went through initial training classes at police academy with Caldwell. “I always told him he’s going to be chief someday. He’s got the desire, the drive, he really does. He sees all the things that need to be fixed,” Judd says.
Mike Walton, a former SPD chief who was commander of the second watch when Caldwell was a young patrol officer, says that Caldwell has earned at least a chance to run the department: “He was always was a pretty sharp kid. He seemed very dedicated, he cared, and that impressed me even when he was a youngster working on the 3-to-11 shift. He used to come up with a lot of good suggestions.”
Naturally, Caldwell stepped on a few fingers on his climb up the ladder. One retired lieutenant, who asked not to be named, says that Caldwell made “some bad decisions” in his quest for the top spot. Another former police administrator, also unwilling to be named in print, calls Caldwell “a chameleon and a hypocrite,” accusing him of “turning his head, going with the crowd.”
But along the way Caldwell has also made many friends, and he appears to have the support of most rank-and-file officers. Sgt. Alan Jones, president of the patrol officers’ union, says he that has no objection to Caldwell’s being chief — at least not yet. “I don’t have a problem with him. I’m pretty optimistic, personally,” Jones says. “If Ralph does something that’s not in the best interests of the officers, we’d be at odds with him. I’m sure that will come about. It’s pretty much a love-hate relationship [between patrol and the chief].”
Caldwell, already acting chief, will become interim chief on Kliment’s retirement date. To drop that “interim” tag, Caldwell needs to win the approval of the City Council. That process begins in the finance committee, which is chaired by Ward 6 Ald. Mark Mahoney. Uncomfortable with simply rubber-stamping the mayor’s appointment, Mahoney has requested that Caldwell appear at the finance committee’s next meeting, on June 26, to answer questions from all interested aldermen. The council could then confirm Caldwell as soon as July 3.
Until then, the man who would be chief is uncharacteristically unavailable to speak up for himself. Though he initially agreed to Illinois Times’ request for a June 7 interview, he backpedaled on June 5, sending an e-mail asking “what topic you would like to discuss with me.” When the reporter responded that she had several topics to discuss, Caldwell e-mailed: “I would prefer to hold off on any interviews until after my confirmation.” Because he can hold the title of interim chief indefinitely, he could, theoretically, maintain this “no comment” stance during his entire tenure. The freeze-out apparently extends beyond the media. After a phone interview with a reporter, Judd tried to contact Caldwell just to chat. A few days later, Judd reported, Caldwell still hadn’t returned his calls. Caldwell keeping quiet — now there’s a development that qualifies as a news flash. Of the SPD brass, Caldwell has always been the most garrulous and good-humored. He signed his e-mails to Illinois Times “Ralph!” and the punctuation suits his personality. He’s got a quick, self-deprecating wit and seems to run on a revved-up engine. The word used by many people to describe him is “energetic.” His sudden muteness makes some aldermen wary. “It’s like a guy hunkering down, saying, ‘Once I’m confirmed, you can’t do anything about it,’ ” says Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards. “That’s unfortunate,” says Mahoney. “I understand the administration wants to make sure the right message gets out there, but to almost immediately go into an adversarial relationship?”
“That bothers me that he’s not talking to the media. . . . I realize he’s not on trial, but he has to work with the public. He says he’s an open person, and my opinion is, if you don’t have anything to hide, then you talk to the media,” says Ward 7 Ald. Debbie Cimarossa. “If I were nominated to be chief of police, I’d say, ‘I’m looking forward to leading this department, and here are my plans.’ I don’t understand why everything’s so secretive.”
Cimarossa sees the situation from a unique perspective: Not only is she a human-resources professional (formerly the manager of administrative services for City Water, Light & Power and now an assistant vice president of human resources for Horace Mann), but she’s also the ex-wife of former SPD assistant chief Jim Cimarossa, whose career at the department closely paralleled Caldwell’s. She has known Caldwell for years and says that the fact that she genuinely likes him makes this decision difficult for her. “I think Ralph is a very, very nice man. He’s very smart. But there are some things that, if they are true, concern me when we’re talking about someone who’s going to lead a department that’s been in some turmoil over the last few years,” Cimarossa says. “You can’t have baggage, and you can’t have baggage with the troops — and some of these troops know about the baggage.”

S pringfield’s record of police chiefs could have been created by the scriptwriters for a soap opera. Over the past 25 years, SPD has had nine chiefs, four of whom left office after either a no-confidence vote or a sex scandal. The one who lasted longest — John Harris, chief from 1995 to 2003 — was responsible for the Renatta Frazier race-discrimination scandal that cost the city almost $1 million in legal settlements and left a bitter aftertaste that still hasn’t been rinsed away. In Harris’ administration, Caldwell was a deputy chief and a member of Harris’ inner circle. Will he resume Harris’ my-way-or-the-highway administrative style? Caldwell’s friend Judd says no.
“Oh God. That’s the only time I didn’t like Ralph. Ralph was extremely unhappy [under Harris],” Judd says. “That’s his nemesis. People believe [Caldwell] was part of the old faction, but he didn’t do it because he believed in the guy; he did it because of his position. He was the chief — and with Harris, if you didn’t go along with the ballgame you were gone.”
Judd says Caldwell acquiesced to Harris’ tactics reluctantly and only because he believed that resistance was futile. “He didn’t agree with a lot of things Harris did, but he was the chief, and Ralph was there to support his decisions and the way he wanted to move the police department,” Judd says. “I used to sit in Ralph’s office and debate: ‘Why are you doing this?’ He’d say, ‘Either I’m going to enforce this policy or the next guy’s going to enforce this policy.’ ”
Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson finds no reassurance in the explanation Judd offers for Caldwell’s cooperation with Harris. “It doesn’t make me feel very comfortable at all if, as opposed to doing the right thing, he said, ‘I’ll do the safe thing,’ she says. “That’s troubling, because I think that’s pretty much what’s gotten the police department in the mess it’s in.”
There’s no evidence that Caldwell played any role in the Frazier scandal, aside from one brief and wordless incident. It was April 2002, and Frazier — a former police officer forced to resign amid false allegations that she had failed to prevent a rape — was being evicted from her apartment along with her husband and their six children. The eviction was questionable — the family had paid the previous month’s rent — and their friend Rickey Davis, then an SPD lieutenant, was there with cash in hand, offering to pay the current month’s rent. Landlord John Vaughn told Illinois Times that police instructed him to decline the money and let the eviction proceed. Vaughn, who estimated that he had witnessed as many as 200 evictions, said that Frazier’s eviction was unique because of the presence of so many high-ranking police officers. At a recent federal court hearing in a related lawsuit, Frazier testified that the eviction angered her because officers were unnecessarily destructive, dumping cleaning fluids on the family’s belongings. She curbed her rage only when she saw Davis approach two colleagues for help and noticed that they literally turned their backs to him.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe these guys are treating me this way. I’ve served with them all my life.’ I realized it was probably more hurtful for him than it was for me,” Frazier testified, “so I just backed down.”
Davis says that the two were Caldwell and assistant chief Bill Pittman. Simpson, who in 2003 took an active role in lobbying the City Council to settle Frazier’s lawsuit, has difficulty finding words to respond. “It’s not a little thing,” she says. “That, to me, oh, shows a total lack of . . . I don’t even know how to describe it.”
Cimarossa says that the story is an embarrassment. “If that happened, that’s a shame,” she says. “I think it’s very shameful for anybody in this city to act that way. We want somebody to lead the department and embrace diversity.”

S  ome veteran officers remember an even older scandal — a mid-1980s investigation into drug use among Springfield cops. Then-Chief Stan Troyer asked the Illinois State Police to investigate, and at least one officer, Michael Bennett, was sent to federal prison on a drug charge. Caldwell has admitted in a deposition that he was interviewed during that investigation but says that he was never under scrutiny. Walton, who was his shift commander at the time, says he doesn’t believe that Caldwell was “ever charged with anything.”
“The problem with some of the young cops back in the ’80s, they got too hung up in the job and forgot sometimes that, hey, we’ve all got rules to go by. We’ve all done that,” Walton says. “But again, he’s older, he’s wiser now. We’ve all made mistakes. I think they just need to give this guy a chance.”
Mahoney says he’s heard about the ’80s probe but only through rumor. “If anything comes out where he was involved in drugs after being an officer, I don’t see how he can be chief,” Mahoney says. “We hold them at a higher standard because they have to enforce those laws. They choose to be police officers, that’s what they choose to be, so those are the standards.”
But most current City Council members are more focused on the issue of Caldwell’s possible involvement in a more contemporary SPD scandal: the Illinois State Police investigation into the activities of former Detectives Paul Carpenter and Jim Graham.
Prompted by a complaint filed by former narcotics Sgt. Ron Vose, the investigation resulted in the firing of both detectives for numerous violations of department policies and charges of wire fraud and official misconduct against Carpenter. The complete findings are contained in a 2,300-page report being kept confidential as a “personnel matter” by the Davlin administration. Caldwell was, for almost two years, the deputy chief over the criminal-investigations division, where Carpenter and Graham worked. Several aldermen have said they don’t feel comfortable confirming Caldwell until they know whether he’s implicated in the report. Davlin promises that it contains no information that could damage Caldwell’s credibility, and has offered to have the chief ISP investigator answer council members’ questions during an executive session. Sources who have seen the report tell Illinois Times that the mayor is correct: The report doesn’t say that Caldwell did anything wrong. Instead, it says he was simply unaware of the detectives’ activities. According to a summary of the report, Caldwell told ISP investigators that lieutenants and sergeants kept him out of the loop because of his complete lack of investigative experience. Still, some council members say, that’s no excuse. “The issue there is: If he was responsible for supervising those officers, he should’ve been in the loop,” says Mahoney. “As police chief, you’re going to have to make sure oversight is a key component. I think that is a legitimate question for our [June 26] discussion.”
Cimarossa, citing the summary report’s account that Detectives Amy Strawn and Tom Bonnett met with Caldwell to air their concerns about other detectives, says that Caldwell probably knew more than he’s admitting. “C’mon, Ralph, you’re conveniently not remembering things,” she says. “I’m having difficulty even believing that he was out of the loop, because Ralph was always the kinda guy that wanted to be in the know.”
Edwards scoffs at the notion that Caldwell was unaware: “So a guy’s in an organization a year and 10 months and has no clue what’s going on? How many years, how many months, would he have to be in this organization before he figured stuff out? He’d been there more than enough time.”
Caldwell’s friend Judd, however, says that his own experience as a deputy chief showed him how tough it can be to keep tabs on wayward underlings.
“I truly believe Ralph had no knowledge of that, period,” Judd says, referring to the allegations against Carpenter and Graham. “Was it brought to his attention would be the big question. I always say you’re responsible for your division — but how do you know if nobody tells you?”
During Caldwell’s CID tenure, several notable incidents should have attracted notice: A feud developed between Vose’s narcotics unit and the detectives in the major-case unit, including Carpenter and Graham; another feud developed between these two star detectives, resulting in Carpenter’s requesting and receiving a transfer to the property-crimes division; and, finally  Carpenter committed the act that resulted in his wire-fraud charge, faxing a phony community-service time card to a probation office in another state.
Earlier this year, during a deposition in a federal lawsuit unrelated to the ISP investigation, a city attorney asked Caldwell to describe his job duties as deputy chief over criminal investigations. Caldwell’s answer suggested that he wasn’t intimately involved in the detectives’ work. “You would be like the policy-maker or the manager of the division,” Caldwell testified. “Day-to-day activities would be overseen by the lieutenants and the first-line supervisors.”
But another deposition filed in the same case hints that veteran homicide investigator Sgt. Tim Young always made sure that his superiors knew what was going on in the major-case unit. Young’s testimony focused on deputy chief Bill Rouse, who was tapped by Kliment to replace Caldwell when Caldwell was promoted to assistant chief. In 2003, Young singled out Rouse as singularly uninterested in the activities of the bureau — an apparent contrast to previous deputy chiefs. “I had other deputy chiefs come in there with little or no experience, but they have always seemed to be responsive, interactive, doing things, involved themselves with the guys, asked questions,” Young testified. “I didn’t have a whole lot of that from Chief Rouse.”
If he becomes chief, Caldwell will likely find himself ultimately supervising Graham, and perhaps Carpenter, again. Sources familiar with Graham’s recent arbitration hearing predict that he will win his job back, as will Carpenter, unless he is found guilty of the criminal charges.
I n January 2006, almost three years after Caldwell’s promotion to assistant chief, Carpenter reached out to him with what he believed was some big news. The city was (and still is) fighting several race-discrimination lawsuits filed by former Lt. Rickey Davis, involving claims of unfair discipline and unequal treatment. In one suit, filed in 2004, Davis claims that he was unfairly passed over for promotion to deputy chief over investigations. The city’s defense cites various “performance issues” in Davis’ work record, including allegations that he was often unavailable during the overnight shift. At one point, SPD internal-affairs officers tried to substantiate rumors that Davis was spending time with a woman other than his wife by placing a tracking device on his car. Davis, however, foiled this effort by catching his colleagues following him around town. Through family connections, Carpenter discovered that Davis had indeed carried on an affair and visited a woman during the overnight shift. Once he persuaded her to talk to city officials about the affair, he called Caldwell’s cell phone. Carpenter, then under investigation and on administrative leave, told Caldwell that this woman could “blow the [Davis] case wide open.” Caldwell knew that the embattled officer hoped that this phone call would earn him brownie points with the administration. “I think Paul in his mind — this is me thinking now — thought it might help his case that he was under investigation for and would make him look like he was coming forward with some information,” Caldwell testified. “Like a hero?” Davis’ attorney asked. “He didn’t say that, but possibly,” Caldwell answered. The woman had agreed to meet with Caldwell and Kliment, but Kliment declined to go, Caldwell testified. Instead, Caldwell was told to take along assistant corporation counsel Jim Lang and to let Lang handle most of the talking. Judd says that Caldwell did not want to participate in this meeting. “He thought he was being set up,” Judd says, “but he was told he had to do it. He didn’t want to do it at all.”
Judd’s account matches Caldwell’s own testimony given in an April 2006 deposition. An attorney asked, “So you were a reluctant participant?”
“Absolutely,” Caldwell replied. The meeting with the woman didn’t produce the desired results. She brought along a box of photos, tickets, and receipts to prove her relationship, but Caldwell and Lang failed to collect the items. She wouldn’t allow them to take notes and later refused to sign an affidavit summarizing the meeting; Caldwell had to sign it instead. When city attorneys tried to argue that Davis had lied on his interrogatory answer by saying that he hadn’t visited the woman while on duty, Davis’ attorney, Courtney Cox, rebuffed the claim by pointing out that their question had encompassed only the previous five years. The affidavit signed by Caldwell was too vague on dates to prove otherwise. In fact, the episode turned out to embarrass the city, because Cox used it as an excuse to explore the on-duty socializing of other high-ranking police officers, including Caldwell. In the April 2006 deposition, Caldwell admitted under oath that he had carried on a long-term sexual relationship with a woman other than his wife, often visiting her home during lunchtime. He testified that he mainly saw his female friend on weekends and that the lunchtime visits typically lasted only 45 minutes to an hour — the duration of the visits being the main difference between his activities and Davis’.
Caldwell, though still married, is separated from his wife. Even his buddy Judd avoids talking about that topic. “I don’t think I could say anything bad about Ralph. His family life is a whole different thing; I won’t get into that. His determination and drive in law enforcement has always been No. 1,” Judd says.
The oath that Springfield police officers take — and that Caldwell will be administering as chief — includes this statement: “I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all. . . .”
Does Caldwell’s private life affect his chance to be chief? Probably not. Mahoney, who will be in charge of the council’s question-and-answer session with the appointed chief, isn’t much interested in what Caldwell does on his own time. “We’re not asking about his private life but how he has responded and acted as a Springfield police officer,” Mahoney says. “That’s really not any of our business on a professional level. What it does tell us is, you have all these connections to situations where maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to bring in somebody from outside.”
Cimarossa has a more personal reaction but doesn’t see this issue as make-or-break. “It bothers me as a woman and as a woman formerly married to a cop. Decisions like that can cloud your judgment. Is it a showstopper? Probably not, but it does concern me,” she says. “Cops are known for that stuff. Why do you want a chief that does that?”
Edwards takes issue only with Caldwell’s participation in the case against Davis. “What a guy does on his own time is his own time, but you can’t attack a junior officer you’re supervising for [doing] the same thing you’re doing. There cannot be a double standard,” he says. And then he has another thought: that this revelation may explain why Caldwell was unaware of Carpenter’s and Graham’s activities. “Maybe his lunch break lasted longer than he thought,” Edwards quips.
The only other contender for the job of police chief is the abstraction known as “a national search.” At least four council members — Simpson, Mahoney, Ward 5 Ald. Sam Cahnman, and Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen — say that accepting applications from outside candidates would be a worthwhile exercise. Walton, the former chief, says that the new chief should come from within the department. “They don’t need any more outsiders. The last two outsiders were disasters, and you can quote me on that. Please quote me on that,” he says. “There’s no reason, in my opinion, to go outside the department.”
Simpson sees no reason to rush. “Caldwell can be our acting police chief until our nationwide search is done,” she says. “We should find someone who has experience running this size or larger department, someone who can be a problem-solver, someone who knows the law and will follow the law and expect his people to do the same thing.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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