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Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015 12:08 am

Park police riddled with problems

More money the solution, consultant says

Former captain Jonathan Davis
The Springfield Park District police department is fraught with problems, and the park board should spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix them.

That’s the conclusion of a consultant who was paid $12,000 to study the district’s troubled police department and recommend improvements to address deficiencies in recordkeeping, equipment, staffing, training and other areas within the three-officer department.

The department is so dysfunctional that when Laimutis A. Nargelenas, the consultant retained through the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, asked for the department’s manual of policies and procedures, he received three, none of which had been updated since 2009. Nargelenas, former superintendent of the Illinois State Police, wrote that officers “seemed unfamiliar” with the manuals’ contents.

Problems were so basic that Nargelenas in his Nov. 30 report recommended that the department rewrite its mission statement, with employees answering the following questions: For what do we want to be known? How do we want to treat each other? What unique contributions can we make? What does each person bring to the team? What big goals do we want to achieve?

The district, which has 34 parks, four golf courses, two baseball fields, a zoo, an aquatic center and an ice rink, employs three officers. It takes each officer five hours simply to visit each facility, Nargelanas found. He presented the district with five options that ranged from paying the Springfield Police Department $781,000 a year for eight city officers to patrol parks to simply disbanding the department and allowing city officers to patrol parks and respond to calls in addition to their other duties.

Springfield police chief Kenny Winslow said that his department’s figure was based on officers with 10 years of experience being assigned to parks, with the city picking up pension costs.

 “We tried to give them the best deal we possibly could,” Winslow said. “That’s what it costs.”

Nargelanas recommended that the district retain its department and more than double the staff, from three full-time officers and one part-time officer to six full-time officers and three part-time officers. That would cost more than $421,000 in startup costs, then more than $235,000 per year thereafter, which would amount to a 51-percent increase in annual police costs.

Andre Parker, the district’s interim chief who is scheduled to leave the district on Dec. 18, acknowledged that city police could take over duties from the park district’s department.

“It’s a real question that the taxpayers of Springfield would have: Why do we need the park police, why can’t we just do with the city of Springfield police department?” Parker said. “You could do that.”

But that’s not optimal, according to Parker and several park board members who say that the district would be best served by a department that has parks as its primary responsibility.

“Personally, I would like to see us retain the police force,” said board member Don Evans. “If we have to switch some funding around to accomplish that, that’s the way I’m leaning, initially. … I don’t think that’s (the city taking over) would be as adequate a coverage as if we had our own force out there.”

Park board members say that parks are safe, but the force in place now is far short of what is needed, Nargelanas found. And problems go beyond staffing questions, according to the report.

“There were some things that were surprising, even unnerving,” said park board member Tina Jannazo.

All 11 emergency phones at Southwind Park are broken, and replacement parts necessary for repairs are no longer made, Nargelanas determined. Nonetheless, the park district is paying George Alarm $20,000 a year to monitor calls from the phones that don’t work.

“That’s horrible,” said park board member Robin Schmidt. “We need to fix that, and we need to fix it soon.”

There is no defibrillator at police headquarters, contrary to state law, the consultant found. Park district police have expensive electronic BAR coding equipment to keep track of evidence, Nargelanas wrote, but the equipment isn’t used because no one has been trained to use it, and evidence isn’t accurately tracked. The department isn’t properly keeping tabs on firearms, sexual assault kits and money, which the consultant said were kept in the department’s evidence vault without proper inventory records. The department has “numerous” vehicles in disrepair that should be either fixed or sold, the consultant found, and several guns appear to be missing.

In its written response to Nargelanas’ findings, the park district said that it has accounted for all firearms, and none are missing. The district acknowledged that proper evidence storage is “critical” and that the evidence vault had not been properly managed. The district said that it would retain a police agency to audit the evidence vault. The district also said that the police vehicle fleet is in “transition” and that vehicles that aren’t needed will be sold.

Nargelanas found no records showing that park district officers had received required annual certification on firearms. Parker, however, said that the training had been accomplished, but the district could not immediately locate records to prove it. There was a question about shotgun certification, however, and Parker said that he removed shotguns from officers’ cars for about a week until officers received required certification last month.

Under state law, monthly reports on crime must be submitted to Illinois State Police, which forwards the information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to compile national crime statistics, but the department hasn’t filed a report since the fall of 2013, Nargelenas found.

Training is deficient, Nargelanas found, and morale is low. Despite problems with policies, procedures, training and equipment, Nargelanas recommended that officers be equipped with Tasers, which he noted could cause serious injury or death even when properly deployed. And park district management agreed that officers should carry Tasers.

“We support the purchase and deployment of Tasers to our police department,” district officials wrote in their response to Nargelenas’ findings and recommendations. “We believe Tasers would be a positive addition to the current inventory of tools at the disposal of our police officers. We acknowledge that appropriate policy development and training of our officers must precede any possible deployment of Tasers to our police department.”

Some of the recommendations aren’t new.

In 2013, Jonathan Davis, the department’s former captain and de facto chief who resigned earlier this year, wrote a report recommending that the district increase staffing to levels similar to what Nargelanas recommended in his report. In recommending increases, both Davis and Nargelanas compared Springfield to park police staffing in Decatur, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Lockport, Peoria and Rockford.

Davis resigned in May after being placed on paid leave when an officer reported that the captain had ordered improper destruction of evidence. Davis had previously been suspended for approving a time card for a ranger who didn’t work as many hours as claimed. Jeff Wilday, an attorney hired by the park district, investigated management issues within the department and determined that there were problems with leadership style and communication, but determined that Davis could rebuild a working relationship with officers (“Law EnFARCEment, June 11, 2015). The attorney recommended that the captain and officers should undergo counseling to improve working relationships. Davis’ predecessor resigned in 2007 after sending a racially insensitive email to an officer that was titled “Proud To Be White.”

Instead of doubling the size of the department, Davis in an interview said that the park district should disband its police department and hire off-duty city officers or county sheriff’s deputies to serve and protect. The district could have the equivalent of six full-time officers by using off-duty cops and save as much as $100,000 a year, he said. The district could tailor coverage, cutting back on patrols during winter months when parks aren’t used much and increasing patrols during warm weather, he said.

“You’re in control,” Davis said. “You dictate when you want them there and when you don’t want them there. There’s no (union) contract, no holiday pay and all that. You’re just buying service.”

What’s the basis for the belief that doubling the size of the existing department will fix problems?

“It’s not unusual for any police department, and small departments, to have things that they can work on,” answers Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police that oversaw the critical report. “We do believe that with the kinds of recommendations that we made that the park district could make very significant changes and important changes. We just believe they could do it. The changes won’t happen overnight. But we believe it’s doable.”

Like Evans, Schmidt says that she favors keeping the department and increasing the number of officers. The challenge is paying for it. Absent voter approval, the district cannot increase property taxes to double the number of officers, and so the money would have to come from existing programs.

“We would absolutely have to explore how we can afford that in our budget,” Schmidt said. “Before this study was commissioned by the park district, I had said months ago, ‘Can we afford this (our own police department)?’ If we’re going to have it, we’ve got to fully staff it. … I’m not surprised with the conclusion.”

Park board member C.J. Metcalf also said that he wasn’t surprised by the report. He said that he isn’t in favor of disbanding the department, but that remains an option. He said that he isn’t certain just what should be done.

“I’m kind of on a listening tour to see what folks have to say,” Metcalf said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com

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