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Thursday, May 15, 2003 02:20 pm

Between the lines

Husch & Eppenberger’s report paints an unflattering portrait of the Springfield Police Department, but leaves some stones unturned.

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For a moment, it looked like the Black Guardians might have a point. The group of black cops had been complaining (some say whining) for years about discriminatory testing, uneven discipline, and other indignities they say added up to a hostile work environment at the Springfield Police Department. But in this era of subtler racism, they had little more than gut feelings and anecdotes to support their claims.

Then, last fall, a trio of events conspired to give them hope. On October 28, Lieutenant Rickey Davis--vice-president of the group--discovered two internal affairs officers following him in a rental car. Later that same week, an Illinois Times cover story revealed that scores of daily media reports accusing a black rookie cop of failing to prevent the rape of a fellow officer's daughter were simply false: the rape had happened before officer Renatta Frazier was dispatched to the scene. And finally, at a special meeting of the City Council called in reaction to the Frazier story, Mayor Karen Hasara bluntly stated, "I believe there is racism in the [police] department."

Ralph Harris, president of the Black Guardians, thought her statement might be the breakthrough they'd been waiting for: "The thing I immediately thought was, now we're getting somewhere. You can't solve a problem until you admit one exists. As long as they're in denial, the problem never goes away."

The mayor hired a law firm to investigate what had happened to Frazier and Davis. Husch & Eppenberger, a Peoria-based defense firm, assigned four attorneys to the case and told the mayor their investigation would take about three weeks. The cost was supposed to be under $15,000.

Six months and as-yet-untold sums later, Husch & Eppenberger's report--made public last week--pinpointed a plethora of problems within the police department, but ultimately concluded that Frazier should have never been hired, Davis may have been playing hookey, and the only racism in the Springfield Police Department is reverse racism.

• • •

The report opens with a series of disclaimers that give some indication of the tension generated by this investigation. SPD's legal advisor William G. Workman shared lists of documents Husch & Eppenberger wanted to see with Chief John Harris and, in at least one instance, Assistant Chief Bill Pittman. "This would allow someone 'in the know' to contact witnesses or access documents in an effort to remove or tamper with unfavorable evidence," the report says. "We cannot say definitively what impact this had on our investigation, if any, though it reinforced the perception that the Department management was not willingly cooperating in this process."

When police department employees showed up for their scheduled interviews, they would find Chief Harris in the hallway or just outside the door. Witnesses reported receiving a personal admonition from Harris to "cooperate and be truthful," which apparently had just the opposite effect.

"Many individuals expressed their reluctance to be completely open with us for fear of retaliation by Chief Harris or their Assistant Chief," the report says.

Once inside the interview room, some officers evidently suffered amnesia. "A lack of recollection permeated a number of our interviews," the report says. "This was disappointing coming from individuals whose employment requires them to regularly recall and document critical details."

Then their stories contradicted themselves or the accounts of other witnesses, or changed altogether in follow-up interviews. "These inconsistent and incomplete reports served to significantly delay matters, as a considerable amount of time was spent simply trying to reconcile events among the many witnesses," the report says.

And those were just the ones who "cooperated." Courtney Cox, attorney for the nine black current and former SPD officers suing the department and the city for race discrimination, "impeded" Husch & Eppenberger's investigation by withdrawing from the process after the firm had interviewed only two of the four plaintiffs on their list. Cox, who had initially planned to let others be interviewed, says he changed his mind after learning he might not have access to the final report.

But Cox wasn't the only attorney advising his clients not to talk to the Peoria lawyers. Without naming names, the report states, "Other current and former officers also had counsel who placed limitations on our access." Even Sangamon County State's Attorney John Schmidt wouldn't let assistant attorneys involved in the rape investigation talk to the Peoria firm.

"I speak for this office on almost all matters," Schmidt says. "I got the information [lead attorney Chris] Nichols requested, and I gave it to him. I told him what happened to this case when it came to our office: The defendant pled guilty to rape and was sentenced to prison. End of story."

• • •

Despite these roadblocks, the Peoria team uncovered a few new details in both the Frazier and Davis incidents. For example, the internal affairs complaint filed against Renatta Frazier for her handling of the October 31, 2001, call has never been released to Frazier or her attorney. A portion of it, however, is quoted in the Peoria report:

R. Frazier was dispatched to a call for help, 4 B/Ms' [black males] attempting to gain entry at 2309 Bradley Ct., [apartment number redacted]. The female caller asked for police. She was also a 10-17 (request to speak with officer). Officer Frazier arrived at the location but failed to exit vehicle and make contact with caller. Officer Frazier requested Dispatch to call complainant back. Once Dispatch called & received the phone answering machine, Officer Frazier cleared the call disposition 31. Officer Frazier never checked the apartment nor exited her vehicle. The caller was attacked and sexually assaulted.

This complaint was written by Danny Hughes, who was at that time assistant chief over field operations. It contains two misleading statements. First, it indicates that the caller "was a 10-17," even though the dispatcher never asked the caller whether she wanted the officer to contact her. According to the report, the term 10-17 is used in the dispatch ticket simply as shorthand for caller: "4 B/M's AT 1017S DOOR." The department has since instituted a policy of having dispatchers ask callers whether they want the responding officer to contact them in person.

Secondly, while Hughes' complaint doesn't explicitly state that the sexual assault happened after Frazier was dispatched to the scene, it leaves that impression. Several officers alerted Hughes to the fact that this implication was erroneous, but Hughes took no steps to clarify his complaint.

The correct sequence of events is outlined in the incident report filed by SPD Officer Scott Kincaid on October 31, 2001, the morning after the rape (the Peoria firm dubs this document "the Kincaid report"). Shortly after 7 that morning, the girl called police a second time, saying two black males were attempting to get inside the apartment, and that these two black males had "previously raped" her. This time two officers--Kincaid and Officer Rodney Groth--responded and interviewed the victim. On the final page of his four-page report, Kincaid writes that the victim's first call to SPD was placed "after the suspects had left." She hadn't mentioned the rape during that first call because she had been "afraid to tell what really happened."

Hughes never bothered to read that report, and the Peoria team chastises him for it, citing a departmental rule that requires officers to make every effort to provide accurate reports and complaints. "It is difficult to comply with this rule if you do not request and review the most basic information," the Peoria report says.

In fact, Hughes--who left town weeks after filing this complaint to become chief of police in Surprise, Arizona--told Husch & Eppenberger that he still believed Frazier could have prevented the rape up until the Peoria attorneys told him otherwise. In an April interview with Illinois Times, Hughes sounded proud of his role in the situation. "Dan Hughes did lead. I did make a call. I said somebody needs to do something about this because this is wrong. I stand by it," Hughes said. "Please put that in there: I made a decision. I didn't pass the buck."

Almost no one else could read the Kincaid report. At the request of the sexual assault victim, Chief Harris "very early on" ordered the report to be kept in a locked file cabinet with "very limited access."

Hughes's erroneous version became accepted as fact. By the time Assistant Chief Jim Burton reported to work that morning, the scuttlebutt on the common sergeants' desk was that the sexual assault call was "all messed up" by an officer who didn't get out of the squad car. By the time Burton reached his own office, he heard from Hughes that it was Frazier who had "screwed up" the call. Officer Groth told the Peoria team he was still at the hospital with the sexual assault victim when he heard radio chatter from dispatch stating Frazier was the officer who had cleared the initial call.

Within weeks, this rumor had reached the media. On December 13, 2001, Burton got a phone call from State Journal-Register reporter Sarah Antonacci asking several questions about Frazier: "specifically her financial past, her 'inaction which allowed the rape of a daughter of an SPD Officer,' and her overuse of sick time and current duty status." Burton documented this media inquiry in an e-mail that was "widely circulated to upper Department leadership," according to the Peoria report. (The report doesn't mention what response, if any, Burton made to the questions posed by the reporter.)

Two weeks later, on December 26, 2001, Antonacci filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the sexual assault report (the Kincaid report). Again, the Peoria team found no documentation of the department's response to that FOIA. On January 3, Antonacci called the SPD public information officer, Sergeant Kevin Keen. Keen read what he believed were all relevant portions of the Kincaid report to Antonacci, who subsequently asked if Frazier was the subject of an internal affairs investigation for failing to prevent the rape of an officer's daughter. Keen told the Peoria team he confirmed that an investigation was in progress but he didn't identify the officer under investigation. The first article accusing Frazier of failing to prevent a rape appeared the next day on the front page of The State Journal-Register.

The story apparently alarmed a few of the SPD officers who knew the true sequence of events. Assistant Chief Mitzi Vasconcelles, who was in charge of internal affairs and had already read the Kincaid report, told the Peoria team that she clarified the chronology to Harris and Keen and suggested they find some way to correct the news story. Detective Rodney Yoswig, who knew the true sequence because he had been working with the rape victim on the criminal investigation, told the Peoria lawyers that he immediately alerted Keen, Sergeant Robert Oney, and Assistant Chief Bill Pittman that the SJ-R's story was incorrect. Although Pittman and Oney have different recollections (Oney--whose signature is on the Kincaid report--disputes Yoswig's account and claims he first learned the SJ-R's story was inaccurate when he read the true chronology in Illinois Times), it is obvious that none of the three tried to correct the SJ-R's article. In fact, Yoswig told the Peoria team Keen responded that it was "best to let sleeping dogs lie."

One person apparently unconcerned about this misinformation was SPD legal advisor William Workman, who had copies of the Kincaid report "from the very beginning." In a section titled "Springfield legal advisor failings," the Peoria report states: "It was Workman's responsibility to affirmatively look for landmines the SPD might face, and he simply did not do this."

In the black officers' lawsuit against the City of Springfield, Workman is the only one of six defendants who has been given his own attorney. A resolution scheduled for City Council action this Tuesday night would set aside $15,000 of city funds for his defense.

• • •

Over the next 10 months, the SPD had multiple opportunities to correct the false and damaging information about Frazier, but never made any effort to do so. In a section called "Opportunities to correct the chronology," the Peoria report details four: First, Keen could have called the SJ-R reporter and simply re-read the paraphrased summary of the Kincaid report. Next, the investigations division (Yoswig and his superiors) could have released the correct chronology along with information about their investigation. The internal affairs officers could have told Frazier the truth when they interviewed her July 10 about the incident. And finally, in August, after Frazier submitted her resignation citing stress, discrimination, and "continuing acts of hostility," the SPD could have told the truth.

Instead, SPD brass relied on three excuses to let the false reports keep circulating: 1) That this erroneous info had come from an "unofficial inside source" and therefore could not be commented upon; 2) the department had a policy against commenting on internal affairs investigations; and 3) any comment might jeopardize the ongoing criminal investigation. The Peoria report completely discounts all three rationales, quoting Vasconcelles and Yoswig saying such a disclosure would not have affected their respective investigations.

However, the Husch & Eppenberger attorneys refuse to accept the fact that Frazier and other black officers did not know the truth. But even though Courtney Cox, attorney for the black officers, denied the Peoria team access to Frazier and Lieutenant Lea Joy, there is ample evidence available to prove Frazier didn't know and that SPD officials purposely used the erroneous chronology against her.

For example, the videotape of Frazier's July 10 internal affairs interview shows officers Vasconcelles and Mark Harms asking question after question implying that the caller was being assaulted in her apartment while Frazier sat outside in her car. And though Frazier--who was heavily medicated with an antidepressant and muscle relaxant--appears impudent and argumentative at times, she never once challenges that scenario. Half way through the 42-minute interrogation, Harms presses Frazier on this point.

Harms: And my question to you is . . . how did you know from the time she called in until the time you got there that the four black males did not get into the apartment without checking the doors?

Frazier: I didn't check the doors. I was just sitting there looking. There wasn't anybody at the door. The dispatcher or the lady on the radio said she had her voice mail on.

Harms: OK. Well, how do you know she wasn't being prevented from answering the phone?

Frazier: I don't know that.

Harms: Exactly. That's my point.

Frazier: How does anybody know it when they don't get out of the car. I do what you people trained me to do. You never trained me to get out of the car [on] suspicious person calls.

Moments later, Frazier asks to take a break and Harms, who has apparently gotten the response he desired, initiates a celebratory high-five with Vasconcelles. Three minutes later, Frazier returns and the officers continue the same line of questioning for another 20 minutes.

Yet the Peoria report faults Frazier and her supporters for failing to learn the true story. "Had anyone on Frazier's behalf questioned whether Frazier could have prevented the sexual assault, the answer would have been 'no.' The problem is no one ever did--including Frazier," the report says.

But Frazier and other African-American officers were asking, through their attorney. By May of 2002, Cox had filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the report on the sexual assault (the Kincaid report) and other items. When Workman denied the request (saying it would interfere with the internal affairs investigation and obstruct the criminal investigation), Cox appealed to Mayor Karen Hasara. On June 3, Hasara denied the appeal, citing the same reasons. Cox then filed a complaint with the Sangamon County Circuit Court. That case was still pending last October when Illinois Times discovered the truth.

• • •

What is left out of this report is almost more interesting than what is included. The Peoria firm's executive summary, styled as a letter to Hasara, says, "We have previously corresponded with respect to the scope of our engagement." Illinois Times' FOIA requesting that correspondence was denied by corporation counsel Jenifer Johnson, who has also asked Husch & Eppenberger's attorneys not to talk to the media about the report.

However, Christopher Nichols, the lead attorney on this investigation, was willing to comment on how his firm--which specializes in defending corporations and government entities--can handle an inquiry objectively.

"A 'defensive' investigation is not necessarily biased nor necessarily lacks objectivity simply because it is defensive," he wrote in an e-mail to Illinois Times. "Indeed, the nature of an investigation requires that we uncover and report facts and that we provide advice and suggestions stemming from our analysis of those facts. Since we were not engaged to defend the City in litigation, that fact only served to underscore . . . that we were not expected to be adversarial nor to advocate any position."

One topic given scant attention in the report is the question of who leaked the erroneous scenario to the SJ-R. Out of the report's 99 pages, just one explores that topic, and it says SPD didn't investigate the leak either. "While certain individuals had their hunches, no definitive evidence was found on this topic," the report says. "The SPD administration tells us they cannot determine who it is, so they do not look anymore." One theory offered: "Officers who did not like Frazier leaked the information regarding Frazier's alleged involvement in the rape to the press."

But that wasn't the first leak concerning Frazier. Before being hired, Frazier submitted to a background check, as all police applicants must do. Federal and state laws mandate that such background checks be kept confidential. Frazier's background info, however, was "apparently disclosed by someone in the department and circulated in the rumor mill while she was still a cadet," according to the report. "This opinion of Frazier, deserved or not, would remain with her during her time on the force. There simply was no reason for anyone outside of the hiring process and the investigator in charge of the background check to have this information, which is highly confidential and should be treated as such."

Ironically, despite this objection, the Peoria team apparently proceeds to repeat this same background information, devoting almost five pages to the subject (much of it redacted) and concluding that Frazier never should've been hired.

• • •

Less than a third of the report focuses on the matter of Lieutenant Rickey Davis being followed by internal affairs. Davis, the vice-president of the Guardians and, until recently, assigned to deep nights as a shift lieutenant, had apparently been the subject of rumors for years suggesting that he was unavailable several hours per shift.

Most names in this section are redacted. What remains is largely hearsay--phrases like "fairly common perception" and "heard for some time via the rumor mill." The report recounts rumors that Davis might be found either at home or in Jerome or Leland Grove. SPD officials quizzed officers in those towns to see whether they had noticed Davis's car there, but they hadn't. Even among assistant chiefs, the discussion relied on gossip. "Geiger . . . shared with Pittman that a first watch patrol officer had told him that the barber who cuts his hair had commented that he frequently saw Davis' car [redacted]."

Eventually, two people (whose names have been redacted) filed a formal complaint about Davis, allowing the department to open a "pre-investigation" to discover what he was doing during the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. "Chief Harris continued the investigation because it would have been indisputable if the Department caught [Davis] on tape backing into his [sic] someone's garage while he was supposed to be working."

Instead, Davis caught Vasconcelles and Lieutenant Pat Foglemen following him. Davis was, at that time, parked in his parents' driveway just off Martin Luther King Drive--far from Leland Grove and Jerome.

According to the black officers' lawsuit, this "pre-investigation" wasn't the only action targeting Davis. In the days leading up to the incident, Davis was being served with the kind of paperwork no officer wants in his file. On October 16, 2002, he got a memo from Chief Harris asking why his reports were generated by sergeants (in the lawsuit, Davis claims it's common practice). On October 28, he got a memo memorializing "counseling" he had supposedly received from Chief Harris three months earlier. Davis took these memos as signs of retaliation. That night, he caught Vasconcelles and Fogleman following him.

Soon after, Vasconcelles and Harms were asked to retire from SPD.

• • •

The Peoria team found no evidence of racism in the Springfield Police Department. The report doesn't mention the low number of black officers--currently 14 on a force of about 280, down from a 1970s high of 25 on a force of about 125. The report doesn't mention the claims stated in any of the several discrimination lawsuits lodged against the police department. The Peoria lawyers focused on whether race played any obvious role in the Frazier and Davis incidents without much mention of the environment in which these incidents occurred.

Subsequently, the Husch & Eppenberger attorneys conclude that the only racism involved in these incidents was reverse racism--that black officers receive preferential treatment. The first example listed is that white officers reported being disciplined for talking to the press or even to civilians while, they said, black officers who spoke to the media suffered no consequences.

The fact that one or more department officials obviously leaked to the media confidential information about Frazier (the results of her background investigation as well as false and defamatory accusations about her role in a rape) without suffering any consequences is not addressed in this section of the report.

Elsewhere, the report includes statements such as, "There is a general belief among many interviewed officers that minority officers are generally less qualified and . . . that some were given a 'waiver' for required training," without any apparent probing into whether this belief could be racially motivated. Similarly, after recounting the department's numerous missed opportunities to exonerate Frazier, the Peoria team characterized the failure to do so as merely "naïve."

Could there be any other explanation? Would SPD officials have sat idly by and allowed a white officer falsely accused to twist in the wind? That question goes unasked and unanswered.