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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011 12:46 pm

Springfield’s police review board has stalled

Police have stopped notifying citizens they have the right to appeal

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A once-controversial civilian review board aimed at policing Springfield police has faded into oblivion.

“It seems like nobody cares anymore about what’s going on in the police department,” says Frank McNeil, a former alderman who spent more than 15 years convincing his colleagues to approve civilian review of alleged police misconduct.

The Springfield Community Police Review Commission held its first meeting in 2006, but has handled just a handful of cases, according to the commission’s former chairman, who resigned two years ago, and the most current chairman, whose term expired in May. Mayor Mike Houston has not appointed replacements, nor has the mayor named appointees to replace two other commissioners whose terms have expired.

Ernie Slottag, city spokesman, said that just one seat, formerly held by James Boykin, who resigned two years ago, is vacant. The other three commissioners whose terms have lapsed on the seven-member commission will continue to serve until replacements are appointed, Slottag said.

Houston said that he has identified two prospective commissioners whom he plans to ask about serving on the commission and is searching for others. Nominees must be approved by the city council.

The commission hasn’t met in several months because it has no cases to consider, said Harry Chappel, the chairman whose term expired in May. He estimated that the commission has heard between eight and ten cases since it was created.

Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson said that she wasn’t aware that terms had lapsed, nor was she aware of the lack of cases.

“I don’t know whether they don’t get cases because there are none to have or whether they’re not being referred (by police),” Simpson said. “People really need to know there is a body out there they can turn to.”

In the past, police included information about the commission and how to file cases in notification letters telling complainants the outcome of internal investigations. Police refused to release copies of the last five notification letters sent to people who have complained to internal affairs.

However, form letters provided by the department show that the police don’t tell complainants about the commission if complaints are deemed unfounded or if officers are exonerated. A form letter shows that police do tell complainants about the commission if complaints are not sustained, meaning that allegations cannot be proven or disproven.

Deputy Chief Cliff Buscher said that the department has erred in not informing complainants of their right to appeal department findings to the commission. He said the lack of notification was not intentional and that the department will determine how many people have not been notified, then tell those people that they can appeal.

“Somewhere along the line, it got mixed up,” Buscher said. “Had you not brought it to our attention, we would not have caught it. Thank you.”

Between 50 and 70 cases are investigated in a given year by internal affairs, according to Buscher and Lt. Christopher S. Mueller, who heads the department’s internal investigation division. Most of those cases end with findings of “not sustained,” Mueller said.

Supporters of the commission, including Boykin and McNeil, have long argued that the commission needs more power, including the authority to issue subpoenas. The commission can only issue recommendations, and no officer whose conduct has been questioned has appeared before the commission, according to Boykin and Chappel.

“It would be nice to hear their side,” Boykin said.

Timothy Nesbitt, who appealed an internal affairs finding of “exonerated” to the commission in 2007, said that he wasn’t satisfied with how the commission handled his case.

Nesbitt, a parole officer with the state Department of Corrections, complained to police after Officer Rikki Castles-Zajicek pulled over the Cadillac Escalade in which he was teaching a niece how to drive.

Castles-Zajicek pulled the Escalade over after making a u-turn on 11th Street to get behind the vehicle, according to internal affairs files. Castles-Zajicek told Nesbitt that she made the stop because a license plate light was out, but the light was working when Nesbitt and the officer walked together to the back of the vehicle.

After the department exonerated Castles-Zajicek, who said that she made an honest mistake, Nesbitt, who believed that he was profiled based on his race, complained to the commission. Nesbitt recalls that the case was sent back to then Chief Don Kliment for review; however, press accounts from 2008 indicate that the commission voted 6-1 not to concur with the department’s finding.

In any case, Nesbitt said that he wanted stronger action, including a formal finding from the commission.

“To send it back to him (the chief), he was already siding with the officers — ain’t no way in heaven or hell they should have been exonerated,” Nesbitt said. “Here’s a blatant, obvious case of being pulled over for being black. … To me, the process was a joke. I think the officer should have been disciplined.”

Boykin noted that the commission doesn’t have the authority to make findings.

“You could only recommend certain things,” he said.

Reach Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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