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Friday, May 16, 2003 02:20 pm

Cop Out 3

art187

Illinois Times' October 31 cover article revealed the truth behind a story that had been repeated scores of time in the local media over the past year: Springfield Police Department was reported to be conducting an internal investigation into whether rookie officer Renatta Frazier failed to prevent the rape of another officer's daughter. Frazier subsequently resigned. We discovered that the rape had actually occurred before Frazier was dispatched to the scene. Police and city officials have been trying to explain their gaffe ever since.

Last week Mayor Karen Hasara publicly admitted there is racism in the Springfield Police Department (Frazier is black), and the city released hundreds of documents pertaining to her case. Illinois Times discovered all complaints against Frazier originated within the department and one of her most outspoken supporters, a black police lieutenant, was being followed by SPD internal affairs investigators.

This week the fallout continues.

Get outta Dodge . . . and SPD too

Mayor Karen Hasara gave the two internal affairs officers who interrogated Renatta Frazier the choice of retirement or demotion Wednesday. Assistant Chief Mitzi Vasconcelles chose to resign. She will be replaced by Lieutenant Rob Williams, who is being promoted to assistant chief. Williams is African-American and a member of the Black Guardians. Lieutenant Mark Harms, whose civil service status prevents him from being demoted, is being transferred out of internal affairs to field operations. Harms is due to retire in January.

Both Harms and Vasconcelles, who were caught on tape exchanging a congratulatory hand slap during their interrogation of Frazier, were already looking to leave SPD. Each unbeknownst to the other had found an Internet job listing for police chief in Dodge City, Kansas, applied, and been named one of the 10 finalists. As we go to press, word from Dodge City is that the field of candidates has been whittled to just four, all of whom visited Dodge City last week. No word on whether either one of the high-five buddies traveled out of state last week.

 

Better late . . .

They wouldn't sit by her in the squad room or speak to her on the street, but the members of the Springfield Police Department union finally made a small stand on behalf of former officer Renatta Frazier. In a November 8 letter to Chief John Harris, the attorney for the Policemen's Benevolent and Protective Association Unit No. 5 cites General Orders that traditionally prevented internal affairs documents from being released to anyone outside SPD.

Such files may be released only "1) Upon receipt of a valid court order . . . or 2) Upon receipt of a properly executed waiver of confidentiality and release form executed by the affected current or former Department member and with specific written approval of the Chief of Police," the letter states.

The PBPA attorney, Ron Stone, goes on to remind the chief that these provisions "have always been scrupulously enforced," with the city and the union even going to court together to protect the records. "We are not going to file a grievance over this matter, only because there is no adequate remedy, as the toothpaste is already out of the tube," Stone writes. "But in the future we expect the City to abide by its own general orders, as the Department expects its officers to do."

 

What's on the other video?

Inspired by the State Journal-Register's Sunday story--in which the newspaper announced it had posted Renatta Frazier's internal affairs interrogations and all associated documents on its Web site--we decided to go back and review the videotape of the special City Council meeting that supposedly authorized the release of the Frazier files.

Well, it turns out the Frazier tapes are more easily obtained than a tape of this public meeting, which has already been shown on public access television. When asked on Tuesday morning for a copy of the council tape, city communications officer Ernie Slottag told Illinois Times to file a Freedom of Information Act request and expect an answer on Thursday. Unable to wait until Thursday, we obtained an official city tape from a helpful alderman.

On the tape, SPD's counsel William Workman repeatedly explains to the City Council that SPD is bound by General Orders and other "written rules and regulations" preventing the department from commenting on Frazier's case. Mayor Karen Hasara repeatedly remarks that she wants "every single thing" pertaining to Frazier made public. But several people, including Hasara, complain they can't release everything without proper permission.

"I do not believe legally we can release them to the public without her permission," Hasara states early on. Later, when she announces, "Alright, I give permission. Let everything be released to the public!" she is greeted with a chorus of aldermen saying, "No, Mayor! No! No! No!"

Alderman Frank McNeil, to whom Frazier had given written permission to receive her files, states: "I'm not going to release them to the public. I want to see them for myself. I can read part of those decisions at this time." Later he reiterates: "I wasn't going to do a blanket authorization. I don't think Ms. Frazier had confidence in other people to have those files released to."

The mayor asks Frazier's attorney, Courtney Cox, if he will consent to the public release of Frazier's files, and he responds by saying he has a signed release authorizing the city to give the files to McNeil, but "that is the extent of the authority that I have at this time."

Alderman Chuck Redpath says, "Listen, Ms. Frazier wants the files released to Mr. McNeil; let's give them to Mr. McNeil. We don't want to give them out to the public. That's not what she [Frazier] wanted us to do."

The closest anyone comes to asking permission for the kind of full distribution of all documents that indeed occurred soon after the council session was when Alderman Frank Kunz asks Cox: "Do you have a problem with the findings of the IA being made public? Not her personnel records. Do you have a problem with the IA report being made public?"

Cox responds: "I do not. I'd like to see it."

It seems clear that the first part of Kunz's question refers only to the decisions rendered on the three internal affairs investigations. But the second part, referring to "the IA report," is somewhat less clear since "IA report" is not a term defined in writing anywhere in a city document.

What happens next may or may not be telling: As the aldermen continue to quiz Chief Harris, SPD attorney Workman can be seen in the background on the city videotape carrying three blue folders to a table near the chief and removing from the front of each folder several loose pages. Workman then stores the blue folders and carries the three sets of loose pages to the podium, ready to answer more questions.

Workman later confirmed for Illinois Times that the blue folders were the three internal affairs investigations and the loose pages were the three judgments rendered by the chief of police. If Workman thought the aldermen were asking for the release of entire files, why didn't he take the blue folders to the podium? Why did he extract just the judgments?

Workman says he believes the aldermen were requesting full release of all documents. "I think we have a difference of opinion on that," he says.

Cox says he never meant to have everything released, even though, he emphasizes, Frazier has nothing to be ashamed of. "I would not want people to think that we have something to hide by complaining about the release of the information concerning Renatta," he says. "We certainly want the truth to come out.

"What concerns me is how they went about this. The city chose to not follow the rules in releasing this information without obtaining permission from Renatta. . . Renatta has been treated differently from day one," Cox says. "This last release is just a continuation of their prior violation of her rights."

 

Different strokes for different folks

One fact revealed in the batch of documents produced on Frazier was that all three internal affairs complaints against her originated inside the department. The first one involved a citizen who had an encounter with Frazier when she was off-duty. When the man called 911 to report this encounter, the dispatcher instructed the man to come on in and file a complaint against Officer Frazier. When the caller expressed reluctance to take such a step, the dispatcher again told the caller to come in, promising to protect his identity.

This scenario is just the opposite of what happened to Bruce Clark. Clark, who owns Bourbon Street Rhythm & Ribs on Springfield's east side, went to SPD in August to file a complaint against an officer who responded to a call at his nightclub. Even though Clark was the complainant (he had asked his security guard to call police to quell a disturbance at his club), he was arrested and jailed by SPD officers. Clark says that one officer in particular battered and maced him, then later told him enroute to the jail, "I enjoyed doing that to you." The responding officers subsequently filed two felony charges against Clark, claiming he had battered them.

When Clark went to SPD headquarters to file a complaint against the arresting officers, he was told by internal affairs Lieutenant Mark Harms that his version of events was not needed, since other witnesses had already come forward. When Clark tried again days later, Harms once more discouraged him from filing a complaint. Next, Alderman Frank Kunz intervened, calling Chief Harris at home to remind him that every citizen has a right to file a complaint. "The chief said, 'Well, OK, but if he files a false complaint, we'll prosecute him!' " Kunz recalls. Kunz and Alderman Frank McNeil then held a meeting with Harris, Harms, and Assistant Chief William Pittman. And then, finally, Clark got to file his complaint. Clark, coincidentally, is black; the officer is white.

 

Remember Renatta?

In the days after the revelation that Renatta Frazier could not have prevented the rape, her attorney Courtney Cox told most members of the media that his client was "too emotionally fragile" to be interviewed. It was his nice way of saving reporters from having their ears scorched.

Frazier was, she says now, simply "livid." Then disbelief set in.

"It's beyond me how people could be that evil," she says. "I have never seen people go to this length to get a little nobody like me."

She thought knowing the truth would make her feel better. But for some time, it just made her feel worse.

"I thought the beginning of this was more pain than I could ever take. But knowing it was a lie hurt me within the depths of my soul," Frazier says.

This experience affected her entire family. When Frazier went on unpaid leave, the family couldn't meet its bills. After the eviction from their apartment last April--which Frazier still insists was unlawful--they had to split up and stay with different friends and relatives. In July, Frazier moved out of state with the kids, while her husband B.J. continued working for the State of Illinois. Finally, he left his job to be with his family. Although Frazier is now working a full-time job plus a part-time job, her husband is still looking for work.

When he learned the truth about the accusation against his wife, B.J. "cried like a baby," Frazier says.

The subsequent release of the tapes reignited her anger. "I thought it was just the IA charges. I had no idea they were going to release the videotapes, the transcripts, all that. I never consented to that and my attorney did not either," Frazier says. "They wouldn't release that stuff to Courtney, they wouldn't release it to me, and now they're going to release it to the whole world?"

She admits that her behavior in the interviews was sometimes belligerent, and she attributes it to one of the drugs she was taking, Celexa, which she says she had taken just about an hour before the first interview. "Once it starts wearing off, it makes me goofy. Just incoherent, agitated, irritated, smart-talking." One time, she says, she even called her husband a "jerk."

"This medication makes me a different person," she says. "I can go from being really angry to crying my eyeballs out to things running around in my stomach to talking about you, jonesing on you, making jokes about your mother, all in the course of this medication being in my system."

She was also taking a muscle relaxant, Flexeril, which she continues to take today, although at a lower dose. The side effects of Flexeril include drowsiness, aggressive behavior, agitation, blurred vision, confusion, disorientation, double vision, excitement, and fatigue.

There has been a bright spot or two in Frazier's sad saga. Along with the unexpected bad she found in people, she also discovered unexpected goodness. "I'm really happy to know how many good-hearted people there are out there--people with big hearts who believe in honesty, integrity, character, and are not afraid to stand up against racism," Frazier says. "It helps me when I talk to my kids and try to tell them people are fundamentally good."