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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 12:16 am

A nose grows in Springfield

Deputy chief fibs about arrest

 

The story was cause for alarm in anyone’s neighborhood.

Burglars hit a North End gun store on Oct. 9 with what sounded like remarkable ease, kicking in a door and making off with more than 50 firearms from a dealer who did business from a home that looked like any other house in the quiet residential neighborhood on East Enos Avenue, not far from Dirksen Parkway.

Somehow, investigators pinpointed the break-in to 10 p.m., although police weren’t summoned until 7:30 a.m. the next day. The cops made a couple of arrests, but didn’t provide names.

Wait a minute, comrade. The police aren’t allowed to arrest people in secret. So I got in touch with Deputy Chief Dennis Arnold, who sends out press releases when the department has something to say and otherwise acts as police spokesman.

I emailed Arnold the section of state law that says police must release the names of arrestees “as soon as practical” and asked for names.

“State law prohibits me from releasing any information concerning juvenile offenders, sorry,” Arnold replied.

State law does prohibit releasing information about juveniles, but what Arnold told me wasn’t close to the full truth. A juvenile had, in fact, been arrested, but even as the deputy chief was citing juvenile privacy statutes, Jimmie Burrage, who is 19 and an adult in the eyes of the law, was sitting in a Sangamon County jail cell, having been busted by Springfield police the previous day in connection with the heist. Burrage was subsequently charged with five felonies, including burglary, theft and possession of a stolen firearm.

Springfield police have a history of being less than open when it comes to releasing information and public records. We’ve been through Shredgate, which exploded in 2013 after police destroyed internal affairs files that were subject to a Freedom of Information Act request. The resulting lawsuit cost taxpayers more than $100,000. There also was the case of Renatta Frazier, a former officer who collected $850,000 from taxpayers in 2004 to settle a lawsuit in which she accused police of discrimination, with the department's penchant for withholding information a central point. Officials had accused Frazier of failing to prevent a rape; had the department simply given the media a copy of the police report instead of reading it over the phone (a time-honored tradition at the Springfield Police Department), reporters would have seen for themselves that Frazier couldn’t have prevented the rape because she was dispatched to the scene after the crime had occurred. Instead, the media, going on information provided by police, reported for months on an investigation into trumped up charges that were easily disproven.

Last week, Arnold refused to release reports on the gun heist.

“You can file a FOIA request if you wish, but I’m not going to release the report,” Arnold wrote in an email when I requested the document. “It’s still an open investigation. Once it is closed I will put out an official media release.” So much for state law, which says that police reports can’t be withheld, regardless of whether an investigation is open, unless the cops can demonstrate that disclosing information would hamper an investigation or pose a danger to someone.

After confirming Burrage’s arrest via jail records, I again emailed Arnold, asking for records concerning Burrage. Chief Kenny Winslow responded, saying that he was concerned that the deputy chief and I were getting in a pissing match.

I told the chief that it is never OK for police to lie to the media or mislead reporters. If there’s a legitimate reason to withhold the name of an arrested person (and that’s hard to fathom in this case, given that Burrage’s associates surely knew that he’d been busted), ask reporters for cooperation, and you’ll get it. But don’t lie. Ever. That’s long been a cardinal rule of media relations, and for obvious reasons, especially given a climate of distrust that exists between the public and law enforcement.

“You have to be able to trust us, and we have to be able to trust you,” I told Winslow.

The chief didn’t disagree. The next day, the chief spoke about the importance of honesty during a swearing-in ceremony for the department’s four newest officers.

“You’re expected to carry yourself above and beyond – your moral compass should be pointed at true north,” Winslow told the recruits. “Whatever you do reflects poorly or positively on the department.”

Then the chief led the new officers in the oath of office: “I will be honest in thought and deed in both my personal and professional life,” the newest of Springfield’s finest recited at the chief’s direction. After that, Winslow continued to lay it on thick as he told the new officers that they’d joined a new family in joining the police force and that their lives will never be the same.

“Everything you do will be second-guessed, it’s just a way of life,” the chief said. “You will be watched every minute, and I expect you to treat everybody with the Golden Rule every minute of every day.”

Amen to that. Hopefully, those words mean something to top brass as well as rookies at the Springfield Police Department.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


Note: This column has been clarified to show that Renatta Frazier, a former police officer, alleged discrimination in her lawsuit against the city of Springfield.

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