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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008 07:07 pm

Pure Joy

SPD’s first black female officer sets the record straight — again

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In 2002, Lea Joy stood up for Renatta Frazier at a special council meeting.

When the jury announced its verdict in the Black Guardians’ race-discrimination trial earlier this month, Lea Joy left the courthouse pursued by a gaggle of reporters whose questions she tersely declined to answer. “I don’t think it’s the right time for me to speak,” she said. “You can follow me all the way to the car, and I’ll still have no comment.”
She went home, climbed into bed, assumed the fetal position, and felt a 20-year struggle to survive as Springfield’s first black female police officer seize her chest with physical pain. She had lost, spectacularly, in federal court. The jury denied her claim that the overwhelmingly white and male Springfield Police Department had become a “racially hostile work environment” for Joy, as well as a more specific allegation that Joy’s transfer from the internal affairs division to street patrol was retaliation for her support of another embattled black female cop. Even worse, during the trial she had heard fellow officers — some she could’ve sworn were her friends — take the witness stand to question her memory, her common sense, her competence, her sanity and the very thing Joy prizes most: her professional integrity.
In 2002, Lea Joy stood up for Renatta Frazier at a special council meeting.
But when the trial ended on the afternoon of Jan. 11, Joy surrendered only a few hours to sadness and sleep. By 9 p.m., hunger had roused her. She got up, made herself some dinner, phoned her grown children to assure them that no, Mom didn’t “do anything stupid,” and then called her attorney, Zoe Newton, to express her appreciation. “The grieving time was over,” Joy says. “It was time to get up and go again.”
Even people who know Joy personally — people who have gotten zinged by her quick humor and or annoyed by her childlike laugh — would be caught off guard by her upbeat reaction to the trial. Despite her loss, she has nothing but compliments for U.S. District Judge Jeanne Scott and nothing but gratitude for the jurors who decided her fate. “I’m like that little boy that steps in a big steaming pile of manure,” she says, chuckling. “I figure it means there’s got to be a horse around here somewhere.”
The horse in this instance is healing. The entire tedious and torturous trial process — depositions, discovering documents, dredging up experiences both good and bad — has given her a new and deeper understanding of her tenure at SPD. Even the most painful days in court, when she had to listen as former co-workers suggested that she was ill suited for the profession she loved, have helped her grasp why she was not fully accepted by the boys in blue. She has no plans to appeal the jury’s verdict; she’s offended that anybody would ever imagine she was in this battle for the money. However, trial testimony tainted her reputation in ways that she can’t stomach, and she is hellbent on setting the record straight. To Joy, it’s a simple matter of righting a wrong. Her obsession to do see it done — that’s just the cop in her.
Among the relics Joy recently unearthed from her stash of SPD memorabilia is a snapshot taken in 1983, when she was a raw recruit at the Illinois State Police Academy. It shows fledgling officers from a variety of agencies seated at long tables in a classroom. In front of each recruit sits a white placard displaying his or her name. All the recruits appear to be focused on Joy — the only African-American in the room. She’s sitting front and center, holding her shiny new badge and smiling. On the table in front of her is a nameplate identifying her as “Lea Jo Honky.”
Back then she was married, and the placard must have been a play on her married name, Lea Joy Hawkins. The photo is faded; the printing on the placards is blurry. It’s difficult to decipher the writing. Still, it’s clear that most officers in the room thought this racially tinged joke was humorous. Even Joy. Even now. “I didn’t take offense because I was used to those things. Some things you have to just let wash off your back,” she says. Almost 60, Joy remembers when racism was as blatant as signs posted above lunch counters in her hometown, Decatur. But she came of age during the civil-rights movement, and was infected with the optimistic expectation that things had changed for the better. She brought that outlook to her pioneering role at SPD, as the first black female on the force. “I was up for any of it,” she says. In her heart, she believed that the other officers would accept her because they would recognize that she was just as passionate about the job as they were.
“She really cares,” says a retired officer, who didn’t want his name used, “and she would get really irritated by people who don’t care as much as she does.”
During her 20 years on the department, she rose through the ranks, retiring in 2004 as a civil-service lieutenant — the highest level an officer could achieve absent political appointment.
 Her career, however, traveled a different arc than most. Most officers start out in street patrol, where they learn the ropes and make friends. Joy spent a significant portion of her first years at SPD assigned to drive the prisoner-transport van rather than patrol, then to desk jobs such as crime prevention and IA. When she was sent back to the streets, once as a sergeant and once as a lieutenant, the gaps in her experience showed. Among her critics, she was tagged as indecisive and “book smart” — which, coming from cops, isn’t necessarily a compliment. During the trial, several officers took the witness stand and used this term to describe Joy. These officers — most notably current SPD Chief Ralph Caldwell — were called to testify by the city of Springfield, to suggest nonracial explanations for Joy’s inability to fit in. Caldwell made “book smart” sound like a euphemism. Asked whether he would call her incompetent, Caldwell said yes.  “She was constantly training and retraining. She was very book smart, and she went to every class she could,” he said. “But I’m not saying she actually improved. . . . We took steps to try to work with Lea . . . . I’m not sure I was successful.”
He testified that Joy questioned procedures. “She didn’t want to follow the norm,” he said. “You’d spend countless hours trying to explain things to her.”
At ISP academy in 1983, Joy’s classmates chuckle at a racial joke someone made of her name. Her place care identifies her as “Lea Jo Honky.”

Caldwell claimed that he would “put her in my car” and take her on service calls and that he responded to her calls “more than any other officer in my career” in an effort to help her. However, another high-ranking officer, now retired, said Caldwell’s testimony was a gross exaggeration. “Please stop reading those quotes. You’re making my stomach hurt,” he said. Joy also quibbles with Caldwell’s testimony. Their street (or “field operations”) assignments overlapped by only about six months, in the latter half of 1995. Before that, Joy was in crime prevention and then out on medical leave with a broken foot. She remembers riding in a car with him only once. “I believe Caldwell told the truth: I was different,” she says. “When I was a [patrol] officer, I would go to a scene and nobody would talk to me. I had to figure out everything on my own. So he was right: I did do book learning, because that’s the only way I was going to find out.”

Lending credence to Joy’s perspective is a document that surfaced during the discovery phase leading up to the trial. One of the Black Guardians’ attorneys, Courtney Cox, got court permission to have a computer expert search for racist material on SPD hard drives. The massive search uncovered a few embarrassing surprises but also at least one thoughtful document written about Joy. Addressed to no one, it reads like a journal entry: “I was able to speak with one of my female peers at length tonight concerning her experiences in police work. As this female is also African American, she has faced a number of difficulties that I am unfamiliar with. I have always had a good relationship with this officer, and she speaks very freely to me. Her career has led her to the same location that I am in, watch commander, but her career took a very different path that didn’t prepare her for the duties she now has, and she struggles with her responsibilities. She didn’t spend much time on the street as a patrol officer before being assigned to a specialized position in crime prevention. She spent the next several years in crime prevention before she made sergeant. Once promoted, she remained in specialized, non-patrol positions for several more years. She was promoted to lieutenant the same day I was, but our levels of experience were worlds apart. She was only familiar with crime prevention, while I had the opportunity to spend 11 years in patrol (patrol officer and sergeant), two years as narcotics unit supervisor, two years as an investigative supervisor overseeing homicides/robberies/sex assaults. Additionally, I had also served a number of years on the department’s tactical team. My career had well prepared me for my new role as a lieutenant, while hers has not. “She has always felt that she was under a microscope based on her gender and race and to some degree I’m sure she was/is. She has become rather paranoid over the years due to this perceived scrutiny, and this has caused her to act much more cautiously in her decision making process. That is one area that we discussed at length. She pointed out that if I make a decision, the chance of it being second guessed by the bosses is very minor, while she feels like every decision she makes is second guessed. She refers to the ‘boys network’ as she discussed this matter. She feels like she has never really been made a part of the team, and this has clearly impacted her negatively. As I reflected on the things she told me, it strikes me as very unfair that she has been denied one of the things that I hold so dearly about this job, and that is the sense of belonging. This has been denied her, and that is truly sad. This conversation, and others with her before, has increased my desire to see that none of the young female officers on my watch suffer the unfairness that my more senior peer has.”
At trial, SPD Deputy Chief Clay Dowis was shown this computer fragment and asked to read it to himself. He then identified it as his own writing. However, because the date typed on top indicated it was written in 2004 — after the BGA lawsuit was filed — a city attorney objected to its relevance and the jury never saw the document.
The most specific claim Joy filed against the city was retaliation because of an abrupt and involuntary transfer out of internal affairs and onto the street in November 2001. Then-chief John Harris testified that the transfer wasn’t retaliatory but rather due to Joy’s insubordination. Joy, he said, had failed to follow his order to reinterview another black female officer, Renatta Frazier. The incident had already been investigated by another officer. The complaint itself was relatively minor — a “courtesy and image” incident in which a citizen claimed that Frazier had behaved rudely. She had been off duty when she encountered a man driving erratically, and approached him at a stop light to ask whether he needed help. They got into an argument and exchanged profanities. Then both Frazier and the motorist telephoned SPD to report the incident.
At the trial, Harris consistently said he wanted Joy to ask Frazier just one question: whether she displayed her badge to the motorist. Joy knew that one question was loaded — Frazier had told the original IA interviewer that she did not display her badge, yet she had told the dispatcher that she did. If Joy could nail down this inconsistency, then Frazier could be charged with a “Rule 27 violation” — lying. For a peace officer, lying was grounds for termination.
At trial, Joy insisted that she did not refuse Harris’s order; she simply couldn’t contact Frazier, who was on medical leave. Joy even presented copies of e-mails she had sent to Harris documenting how many times she had tried to call Frazier. (After the trial, she located a page of questions she had typed out to ask Frazier, as well as a yellow pad with scribbles noting the complainant’s traffic citations — info, such as the fact that he had no valid driver’s license, she was surprised wasn’t already on file.) “Doesn’t that tell you I was continuing an investigation?” Joy asks. She admits: She didn’t agree with Harris’s request. “I was very upset about it, and I thought we were harassing Frazier. But it never came into my mind that I could stop an investigation on my own,” Joy says. “The smartest thing Harris could’ve done was order me to continue the investigation. I was going to go after her. And I might’ve gotten her, too.”
Looking back, Joy theorizes that the real reason Harris transferred her out of IA might not have been retaliation after all but rather to prevent her from overhearing discussions about another investigation IA had started against Frazier.

That investigation evolved into a major scandal that ended the careers of almost everyone who touched it. It started in the wee hours of Oct. 31, 2001, with a 911 call from a girl in a Brandon Court apartment, complaining that several men were knocking on her door. Frazier — pulling a double shift that night — responded to the call, used a spotlight to search the area, and had a dispatcher telephone the girl. Seeing no signs of a disturbance and getting no answer on the phone, Frazier left to handle another call. Six hours later, the girl called 911 again, saying the men had returned to her door. This time, officers found her apartment open. The girl — daughter of a police officer — told them she had been raped. Within a few hours, then-Assistant Chief Dan Hughes filed an internal affairs complaint against Frazier insinuating that she failed to prevent the rape. Weeks later, that allegation was leaked to the State Journal-Register and repeated by the media for a year. Amid these salacious accusations, Frazier resigned from the force and moved her family out of state. In October 2002, an Illinois Times investigation revealed that the accusation had been totally false: the rape actually occurred before Frazier was ever dispatched to the scene. More than any other officer, Joy stood up for Frazier. At a special Springfield City Council meeting called in response to the IT story, all the Black Guardians arrived in uniform, but only Joy sought permission from their police chief to speak. She addressed the aldermen, telling them that Harris had to have known all along that the information being broadcast about Frazier was untrue. But to her horror, at the recent trial, Joy was accused of the same crime. Mary Vasconcelles, who had been assistant chief of IA in 2002, testified that she showed Joy the police report with the true sequence of events the morning after the rape, suggesting that Joy knew all along that the allegation against Frazier wasn’t true. Vasconcelles’ testimony infuriated Joy. “You don’t know how hard it was for me to sit in my seat when these people were denigrating my integrity,” she fumes. “I didn’t mind them having their opinions and all that, but when they questioned that I wasn’t going to be honest about everything, that pissed me off to no end.”
Yet she insists she can’t remember whether she ever saw the sexual-assault report, in which the accurate chronology is mentioned on the fourth and final page. And Joy, being Joy, refused to testify otherwise.
“I don’t remember and I’m not going to lie and say that I do remember,” Joy says, “but you can be sure that had I known the sequence of events, it would’ve taken my whole department to stop me [from speaking out]. I would’ve given up my job rather than allow Renatta to spend a year’s time of that hell of thinking that she failed to prevent the rape of another woman. As a mother, as a woman, no, I couldn’t have done it.”

The trial, and the preparation leading up to it, forced Joy to review her entire career with SPD — to search for friends who might speak up for her (her field training officer, George Judd, told jurors that Joy was “an excellent police officer”), to gather any mementos that might prove racial malice (Joy admits: she didn’t apply herself to such a search), and to confront accusations attorneys used to defend the city of Springfield. The whole process was painful, Joy says. “I didn’t realize how many emotions I had squashed until the deposition. As much as I hate to show my emotions in public, I just sobbed through the whole damn deposition. I felt bad for the attorneys that had to go through it,” she says. Yet her sense of humor seemed stronger than anything else. When she recalls getting assigned to the midnight shift, she laughs at herself for brushing off the warning one officer gave: “He said, ‘We’ve discussed it on third watch, and we don’t want you. We’ve voted you off.’
“What is that saying — fools go in where angels fear to tread? That was me!” Joy says. “I had so many guardian angels, they must’ve tagged each other like in a professional wrestling match.”
But if she had her life to live over again, would she make a different career choice? “Golly. . . ” she sighs, then ponders for a moment. “I’d have joined [SPD] sooner so I could’ve stayed longer, and I’d speak up even more.” 

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com
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