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Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007 05:07 am

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Rookie cop Tara Borders was nothing like Renatta Frazier — so why did Springfield drive her away too?


Borders (right) appeared on a recruiting brochure for the Louisville, Ky., Metro Department of Corrections.

Like any rookie Springfield police officer, Tara Holder Borders spent her first few weeks on the streets learning to navigate unfamiliar neighborhoods, communicate by way of 10-code and alphabet soup, and juggle both her radio and mobile data terminal while driving a police cruiser. She had to master the mechanics of report writing, figure out how to arrest people twice her size, and learn to divine the truth in domestic altercations.

Unlike other rookies, however, Borders discovered, to her surprise, that she had a personal fan club. Only the fourth African-American woman to ever wear an SPD badge (two of whom are retired), she was greeted with cheers of encouragement from black citizens all around Springfield. Total strangers congratulated her and told her that they were proud she had made it as a cop. Once, during a traffic stop near a liquor store on Peoria Road, an African-American man offered her some pointed advice: “Don’t let ’em do you like they did Frazier!”

Borders, who still chuckles when she recalls that stop, had an inkling of what he meant: Renatta Frazier was a rookie Springfield police officer who in 2002 was famously forced to resign from the department amid allegations that she had failed to prevent the rape of a fellow officer’s teenage daughter. An Illinois Times investigation revealed this accusation to be an outright lie: The girl had been raped before Frazier was ever dispatched to the scene.

Borders, however, hadn’t really followed the story, and she assumed that all the bad apples who’d framed Frazier had been tossed by the time she joined SPD in 2004. “I thought — maybe it’s changed; maybe they’ve cleaned out the department,” she says.

For a while, her optimism seemed justified. She sailed through academy training, made friends with her classmates, and began earning the respect of her fellow officers the day she hit the streets. The buzz among brass — where the department’s paltry 5 percent minority-hiring record is a source of political embarrassment — was that Borders was competent and qualified, a definite keeper. There were even signs that she was fitting in among the rank and file: When she found a Kmart ad for a child’s car seat in her roll-call mailbox, she recognized it as a good-natured joke (she’s a tad under 5 feet tall) and a sign of acceptance by at least some of the guys.

Then, just before her field training ended, Borders shocked her supervisors by resigning. She submitted a graciously generic letter, politely declined all requests for explanation, and, within a few months, moved out of state. She never told anyone why she’d quit the SPD — until now.

On the surface, Borders and Frazier seem similar: Both are black women, with at least one kid in college, they’re almost the same age (Borders is 39, Frazier is 41), and both have a passion for law enforcement, with the personality to match. Neither woman takes any guff, though Borders is more likely to wave it off with a laugh — “Whatever!”

The similarities end there.

Borders hasn’t filed a race-discrimination lawsuit against SPD, the city of Springfield, or anyone else. She was never a Black Guardian, was never a client of erstwhile civil-rights attorney Courtney Cox, and she isn’t writing a book.

The two women’s tenures with SPD didn’t overlap. Frazier was hired in August 2000, resigned two years later, and won a settlement worth about $1 million from the city of Springfield in April 2004. Borders was hired about six months later. She and Frazier have never even met.

Borders seemed like the perfect antidote to the Frazier scandal. Whereas Frazier had arrived at SPD so bruised from her negative experiences at the police academy that she had a chip on her shoulder, Borders bubbled over like a Miss America finalist — sunny disposition, warm smile, relentlessly upbeat attitude.

Her longtime friend Donna Murray, who works for the Illinois Department of Corrections, believed that if any black woman could succeed at SPD, it was Tara Borders.

“She’s the type of individual [who] got along with everybody, wherever she worked. She got along and she made friends wherever she went. I thought she would be a good fit with the Springfield Police Department,” Murray says. “She’s outgoing; she’s friendly; she has a great sense of humor; she knows, when a situation gets tense, how to bring a positive spin to it.”

More important, she wasn’t burdened by any of the qualification quibbles that haunted Frazier. With two years of military experience and more than a decade of employment as an accountant at various state agencies, Borders had no trouble adapting her skills and mindset to the culture of police work.

In fact, she had already logged three years at the Illinois State Police Academy as a nonsworn employee in the budget department. She had close friends and advisors at ISP (an ISP lieutenant and an ISP sergeant would pin her during her swearing-in ceremonies), and they inspired her to pursue law enforcement as a career.

She applied to ISP in addition to SPD but didn’t make the first cut on either list. By the time SPD offered her a job, in 2004, she had almost forgotten that she had applied. She seriously considered turning SPD down to see whether she would make the next class of recruits for ISP.

“My mom’s one of those that always believes that when opportunity knocks, you’ve got to go for it. You don’t always get second chances,” Borders says.

One person who tried to persuade her to wait was Jere (pronounced “Jerry”) Northern, who has worked at the ISP academy as a public-service administrator for 10 years. Northern has spent most of her adult life in law enforcement (in addition to ISP, she has worked in probation, parole, and corrections) but always as a civilian. She has a master’s degree in counseling and specializes in training and mediation. Borders refers to Northern as her mentor; Northern prefers to describe herself as a close friend — and as someone who speaks her mind.

Like Murray, Northern describes Borders as the kind of woman who would be an asset to almost any organization, calling her “outgoing, dynamic, and perceptive.”

“She’s bigger than life,” Northern says. “She’s a little short thing, but she comes across much, much bigger — and, yes, she is a lot of fun.”

Former SPD Chief Don Kliment says he believed Borders was making good progress through her training.
Northern made an effort to dissuade Borders from signing on with SPD by warning her that her race would put her under the spotlight. “I thought the mindset of the Springfield Police Department was tokenism: You get a few blacks in this whole pool of whites and you put them right up front and say, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got blacks — just look right here!’ ”

Northern has virtually the same opinion of her own employer but says she would have rather seen Borders work for ISP than for SPD because a state agency would provide more career options. But Borders discounted her mentor’s advice and decided to accept the job at SPD.

“I went back and forth over it and I decided, ‘OK, I’m going to do it,’ ” she says. “I felt good about my decision. I felt really great about it.”

Here’s another difference between Frazier and Borders: Frazier’s recruit class was trained at the ISP Academy; Borders’ recruit class was sent to the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois at Champaign. The two schools teach similar skills but use dissimilar techniques: At ISP, the atmosphere is like boot camp, with emphasis on bearing, etiquette, and regimentation. At PTI, the setting is a college campus, where, Borders says, the instructors welcomed recruits with the news that the only pressure they would feel would be any pressure they put on themselves.

“And it was true!” she says.

Consequently, the two women have opposite perspectives on their training. Frazier, who had no military background, chafed under ISP’s rigid format and was constantly being written up for such infractions as not wearing her hat or failing to return the “greeting of the day.” Borders, who had military experience, found that she could focus on her studies in the relaxed atmosphere of PTI. It helped, she says, that she had just finished her bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois at Springfield and still had good study habits.

Her main concern, because she had never shot a handgun, was passing the marksmanship test. She enlisted the help of retired ISP Sgt. James Mason, who went with her every weekend to a shooting range to practice. At the academy, she was classified as “remedial” and given one-on-one instruction by the PTI range director, world-champion marksman Tom Kilhoffer. Borders made steady progress and felt confident that she would pass.

A few days before the qualifying exam, Borders received a new weapon from SPD — a Glock 19, issued to her because the department’s standard .357 SIG was too big for her small hands. It was, Kilhoffer says, a substitution routinely made for “small-stature people,” and he had been training Borders on a Glock 17 in anticipation of this change. When she took her new Glock 19 to the range, however, she suddenly couldn’t hit anything.

Kilhoffer, appalled that Borders had apparently lost her hard-earned skills, reacted by giving her what he calls a “verbal slap” — a last-ditch technique he says he has used only three times in his 30 years as a firearms trainer.

Yelling, “Do you want this job or not? Get it together! You’re not going to qualify!” had worked before, but not with Borders, Kilhoffer recalls. He finally took her new weapon and tried it himself. Then he took Borders off the firing line and into his office.

He explained to her that the factory sets the gun’s trigger pull at 5 pounds. Her new gun had been modified so that the trigger required 8 pounds of pressure to activate. He asked her: “Do you have any reason someone would change it?” Borders said no.

“I didn’t think anything of it, you know? I didn’t,” she says, “except for his expression.”

Kilhoffer, now retired, trained some 600 recruits per year and has trouble recalling specific students — but he remembers Borders. He says the modification made it virtually impossible for anyone accustomed to a standard trigger pull to shoot straight.

“If she got used to a 5-pound trigger and you increase it to 8 pounds, if she’s right-handed, it will send her shots to the lower left. There’s a jerking motion,” he says.

How many times in his teaching career had he seen a police department issued a gun with a modified trigger pull to a recruit? None.

“It was noticeable,” he says. “Actually, a better word would be peculiar.”

Don Kliment, who was then Springfield’s chief of police, says he knew that Borders was issued a Glock but didn’t know that it had been modified. “I don’t know why we would do that. I don’t know why we would adjust a gun,” he says.

At Kilhoffer’s suggestion, Borders used the PTI Glock instead of her new SPD gun on exam day. She scored 40 of 50 — five better than the 35 required to qualify.

W  ith Borders set to leave PTI, Northern fretted that her young friend was unprepared for SPD — though not because she doubted Borders’ abilities. Instead, Northern worried that Borders might miss the nuances of law-enforcement culture.

“I am much more jaded than she is, maybe because I’m older and wiser,” says Northern, who plans to retire in January. “You know, I’ve been there, done that, seen all those kinds of games and maybe played a few myself.

“Like the incident with the gun,” Northern says. “I know why they did that. It’s because firearms is the key thing. You cannot fail firearms. It’s one of the critical things that will get you dismissed. I think it was a deliberate setup for her to fail.”

Borders kept a journal during her field training.

Borders was entering the hands-on stage of training, in which each newly sworn cop hits the street paired with a series of at least three different field-training officers, or FTOs — veterans who teach and evaluate the fledgling officer, grading every call he or she handles on a five-point scale. The FTO program is structured to give rookies increasing responsibility as they master necessary skills. However, if a newbie cop needs more work on certain concepts, an FTO can recommend that the rookie repeat that phase. For this reason, the FTOs have enormous power over the rookies — controlling their progress, forming their attitudes about police work, and, to a large extent, shaping the reputation of each new officer in the department. For a new cop, field training is a critical, and stressful, time.

To arm Borders, Northern bought her a special graduation gift: a red leather journal in which she could keep a running record of her training.

“I told her to start writing things down, because nothing happens in isolation,” Northern says. “When you look back and start connecting the dots, you can see what happened and why.”

The journal, which Borders provided to Illinois Times, proves the gap between her perspective and Northern’s. Instead of looking for subtext or innuendo, Borders used the diary as a log of basic events. Each day’s entry, scrawled hastily, notes the name and badge number of her FTO, as well as the shift and the beat they worked together. She noted any new duties, any interesting or offbeat calls, and whether she got a break for lunch.

“I’m a big eater!” she explains now. “I love eating lunch, and that’s what I looked forward to.” (Frequently working right through her meal break, she dropped from 130 pounds to 112 during her training.)

Mostly her journal shows a student striving to succeed, alternating between self-criticism and pep talks.

“This is my 4th day and I didn’t do so well,” she wrote on Feb. 26, 2005. “I need to be more aggressive . . . . I find myself missing things, calls, etc., [dispatch] codes. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day, if I don’t get frustrated.”

The next week, she was still feeling apprehensive. “I’m trying to convince myself that I’m having fun, but I’m so nervous,” she wrote on March 2. “I pray that I make it through this program and that it becomes easier.”

Six days later, she recorded encouragement from her FTO, Alan Jones, but mentioned that she was haunted by the memory of another black female rookie.

“Al tried to analyze me. He told me I was being hard on myself. I am, because I want to get through the program. I don’t know the streets, I’m having trouble writing the reports, and I’m nervous,” she wrote on March 8. “I don’t want to fail. I want to get a fair chance. I don’t want to end up like Renata [sic] Frazier. SPD set her up. I always keep this incident with Renata in the back of my head!”

Then, in the same entry, she switched back to critiquing herself: “Al drove today, we were in beat 600. He said I also need to work on my radio communications.”

The next day, she sounded perkier. “At the end of the day, [Jones] said I had a good day!” she wrote. “P.S. I did a report on criminal trespass. Finally, it was approved. It was so much easier to write because I did the leg work!” The entry ended with a smiley face.

Twice in her journal she mentioned feeling like an outsider during roll call, not accepted by the guys, but she shrugged it off. “Oh well. I think I’m a good officer,” she wrote on April 11. “I’m not losing all this weight for nothing. I must care about my career!”

Borders didn’t just critique herself; she also made notes about her FTOs in her journal, and it’s clear that she enjoyed working with most of them. She liked Ronald Williams and David Pletsch; she clicked with Jones and with Ken Scarlett.

“Scarlette was great! He really was. He taught me a lot,” she says. “He was so patient. That man should be promoted.”

Jones, she says, was stern but fair.

“He would get on my butt so many times, because I’d have days when I couldn’t do anything right,” she says. “But I think it was because he wanted me to get through it and do good. He didn’t want to send me out there half-ass.”

Illinois Times made repeated requests for permission to interview Jones and Scarlette, but city officials refused, saying that even positive comments would violate city policy against discussing “personnel matters.” However then-Chief Kliment, now retired, confirms that Borders seemed to be making satisfactory progress.

“I never heard of any problems with her. If a recruit’s doing poorly, I would’ve been advised of that,” he says.

Just as Borders began the “shadow phase” — the final three-week portion of field training, when the FTO rides along in plain clothes — Jones was out sick and Borders was assigned to work with a different FTO. He immediately began making disparaging comments about her work and giving her low scores — usually a score of two on a five-point scale. (Illinois Times agreed to keep this FTO’s name confidential.) This FTO told Borders he couldn’t believe she had made it as far through the program as she had.

“It made me feel self-conscious. I thought — well, what, are they pushing me through because they need a black female? That was the impression I got from him. He never said that, but that was his thing,” she says.

Alan Jones was one of Borders’ favorite field training officers.

She went home determined to get a good night’s rest and make a fresh start with this FTO, but their next shift together was just as bad as the first. “That whole week was just horrible,” she says.

The next week, she suffered another setback: She received a memo from the evidence section, indicating that she had muffed a “found property” call some three-and-a-half weeks earlier — a call for which Jones had given her the top score of five.

The call, on June 5, came from a man who found a purse. With Jones watching and advising her, Borders picked up the purse, found a license inside, and drove to the address — an apartment located over a store. “It was vacant, totally vacant,” Borders says. She also tried a phone number associated with the address. Since the number didn’t work, Borders turned the purse over to the evidence section.

On June 30, she received a memo stating that the owner of the purse had responded to a certified letter sent by SPD and had come to police headquarters to retrieve her purse. When the evidence technician performed a routine search of the purse with the owner, a “dime size bag” of cannabis was found inside a zippered pocket.

The memo from the evidence section stated that Borders had made an error: “This notice is sent to remind you that ALL BELONGINGS NEED TO BE SEARCHED PRIOR TO BOOKING THEM IN. Evidence does double-check the items, however it is the booking officer’s responsibility to book the items in properly. Please follow these procedures in the future.”

Borders was stunned. She believed then, and now, that she had thoroughly searched the purse.

“I’m a female; I carry a purse; I know where to search,” she says. “I looked through everything, [including] the zippers, shook it out, booked it in.”

Jones was named in the memo, too, and he subsequently rescinded Borders’ five-point score on the call and gave her a lower grade. She refused to sign the revised evaluation. The incident didn’t just make her angry; it also made her suspicious.

“There were too many coincidences for me,” she says. “I thought, OK, it sounds like they’re playing games here.”

She began to wonder whether she had been set up, just like Frazier.

Five weeks later, Borders quit. She wrote a letter citing finances and family responsibilities, then left.

“It’s funny, because, getting on, I thought long and hard about it — and quitting, it didn’t take me but a day to type my resignation,” she says.

On the advice of Northern — her friend and mentor from ISP — Borders never told anyone why she resigned. “It wouldn’t have made a difference, I don’t think,” Borders says.

Northern, though, now regrets advising Borders to keep quiet.

“You know what they say about free advice: You get what you pay for!” Northern says. “I advised her to just write a nondescript letter . . . . when, really, the reason she was quitting was because of all these built-up things, trying to fit into that police department.”

Borders can pinpoint certain discouraging incidents — the purse, the nasty FTO — but one of the final entries in her journal mentions a larger, more pervasive problem: Her unwanted, uncomfortable, unavoidable status as one of only two black females on the 280-strong force.

“I feel good about my job, but everywhere I go, [black] people are proud of me and I feel like I’m carrying all of Springfield on the weight of my shoulders!” she wrote.

“I’m proud of myself and the oath I took, but I didn’t sign up to carry the black population. Too much responsibility!!”

Borders is speaking up now in hopes that SPD will learns from her experiences. When Illinois Times outlined her concerns to several city officials and asked what measures are being considered to make SPD more welcoming to qualified black female officers, city spokesman Ray Serati provided this response via e-mail: “We welcome anyone and everyone who wants to become a Springfield police officer.”

Borders’ mentor, Jere Northern, points out that attracting recruits is only half the battle.

“They can say they want to recruit qualified minorities, and they could be very sincere about doing it. But there’s a difference between recruiting them and retaining them,” she says. “The recruiting is a process; the retention is an attitude, a mindset — we’ve got a qualified person, we’re going to make it work.”

Borders subsequently moved to Kentucky and got a job as a corrections officer. She now manages the central-Kentucky region for Guardsmark LLC, a major international security-services firm.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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