Print this Blog
Thursday, May 8, 2003 02:20 pm

Sins of omission

For its investigation into racism at the SPD, Husch & Eppenberger interviewed 46 people. Why were only three of them black?

The only racism in the Springfield Police Department is reverse racism--the kind where blacks get better treatment than whites. That's one of the conclusions reached by the Peoria law firm Husch & Eppenberger, which was hired last November to investigate the Springfield Police Department's handling of two cases involving black officers. The firm's 99-page report was released at a City Council meeting Tuesday night.

According to the report, attorneys from Husch & Eppenberger interviewed 46 people during the course of their 19-week investigation. But it appears that only three African-Americans were interviewed. All three have filed race discrimination lawsuits against the department.

Two of the African-Americans interviewed--Lieutenant Rickey Davis and Officer Ralph Harris--are plaintiffs in a suit currently pending in federal court. The report dismisses these two officers' complaints as unsubstantiated.

The only other black person interviewed by the Peoria firm was Don Schluter, SPD's division chief of technical services. Schluter and three other African-American officers filed a race discrimination lawsuit against SPD in the 1970s, complaining that the department's test for sergeants was biased against blacks. As a result of that case, the city was ordered to devise a non-discriminatory test. That lawsuit is not mentioned in the Husch & Eppenberger report.

Schluter says the Peoria attorneys did not ask him about his lawsuit, but he "might have volunteered" the information during his interview. They did ask him about racism, he says. "I think they asked me what was my feeling on that. And I was just telling them there's always going to be racism in the police department. Let's be honest! I just couldn't elaborate on the [current] issues."

Husch & Eppenberger was hired by former mayor Karen Hasara last fall to investigate the case of former officer Renatta Frazier--publicly and erroneously accused for almost a year of failing to prevent the rape of another officer's daughter--and a complaint from Davis, who discovered that he was being followed by a pair of SPD internal affairs officers. Like Davis, Frazier is one of the nine black former and current SPD officers who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city claiming racial discrimination.

Schluter, whose job covers "everything not sworn," played no role in either the Frazier case nor the Davis incident and says he didn't know why the Peoria lawyers wanted to interview him. "Maybe just for the minority aspect," he says.

Chief John Harris, who recently submitted his resignation, has publicly pointed to Schluter as proof of his efforts to make SPD more inclusive. When Schluter retired from sworn duty after 31 years, Harris made the department's two division chief positions open to civilians specifically so that Schluter could take one of these jobs. Harris mentioned Schluter's job in a March 2002 State Journal-Register story headlined "Police chief responds to racism allegations," when black officers were talking about filing their lawsuit. He mentioned Schluter again during a special City Council meeting called days after Illinois Times published a story revealing that the accusations against Frazier were patently false.

Schluter says he was questioned by two female attorneys "for an hour, give or take," after which he invited them to lunch at Chesapeake Seafood House. "I'm a nice guy, it was well past [lunch] time, I'm going to lunch, that's the way I was raised. I'll take anybody to lunch," Schluter says. He offered to pay for everybody's meal, but recalls that the lawyers covered their own tab.

Husch & Eppenberger is nationally known for its expertise in defending private and public entities against complaints from employees. Jenifer Johnson, newly appointed corporation counsel for the City of Springfield, says she has asked the Peoria attorneys not to comment on their investigation.

The Peoria report blames Courtney Cox, attorney for the black officers in the pending lawsuit, for not allowing more of his clients to be interviewed. Cox says they only asked to talk to four plaintiffs--Davis, Frazier, Ralph Harris, and Lea Joy, "the four they were hoping to find dirt on." And now that he has seen the full report, Cox says, he realizes that much of what Davis and Harris told the Peoria attorneys never made it into the document.

"They interviewed Rickey and Ralph for almost five hours each, yet almost none of what they told them about the history of racism in the department was included in the report," Cox says. "[Davis and Harris] talked at length about the low numbers of black officers, the lack of promotions, how [federal grant money] was used to target people in the East Side of town, and yet it was not mentioned in the report."

But the Peoria attorneys weren't asking for this type of information, Cox says. "These were things Rickey and Ralph were volunteering, to help them understand what happened to Renatta."