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Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018 12:19 am

The lone ranger

A sheriff's deputy shunned

 Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy Travis Koester may soon need a tattoo removal specialist.

Then again, Koester’s colleagues might be willing to do the job themselves, judging by an Illinois Labor Relations Board case that reveals deep animosity between the deputy and his fellow cops.

The labor board last month ruled against Koester, who had claimed that he was wrongfully removed from the department’s tactical response unit in 2016.

These are the cops who go after barricaded gunmen, rescue hostages, serve search warrants and otherwise engage in the type of law enforcement that calls for cool heads, quick thinking and teamwork. Members are known for their tattoos: “Often tested, brothers forever.” But Koester, who has one of those tattoos, is a brother no more, having been thrown off the team after deputies told him, to his face, that he could not be trusted.

Koester’s fellow cops aren’t the only ones with doubts about the deputy. Koester’s credibility and judgment also have been questioned by judges, defense attorneys and department brass.

In 2008, the sheriff’s department, citing concerns about how the deputy dealt with the public, told Koester that he couldn’t respond to calls alone and that his courtroom testimony would be monitored by higher-ups. Koester protested, and an arbitrator ruled that the department had improperly disciplined the deputy. In 2010, charges against a suspected drug dealer were dismissed after Koester testified under oath that the investigation started with a Crimestoppers tip, but that wasn’t true. He’s also clashed with Joe Roesch, a lawyer who is the department’s second in command, about requirements for obtaining search warrants.

Koester’s days as a DUI enforcement officer ended in 2012 after judges questioned his veracity in cases that crumbled after the deputy took the stand. After viewing video of Koester tasing a woman in 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough rejected the deputy’s explanations, opining that the video spoke for itself. The county settled for $150,000.

Koester’s fellow deputies also have turned on him.

In 2014 and again in 2016, Koester, without union help, filed grievances, claiming that promotions that went to other deputies should have gone to him. Two of the three deputies who got promotions that Koester sought were on the tactical response unit, and if Koester had won his grievances, they likely would have returned to lesser positions with lower pay. After Koester filed his second grievance, unit members confronted him.

It was the equivalent of a players-only meeting, with no command staff present. Team members told Koester that they thought he was selfish and didn’t care what happened to anyone else. In addition to grievances that could have resulted in rescinded promotions for other deputies, they cited Freedom of Information Act requests that Koester had made for internal affairs files on his colleagues, including deputies on promotion lists. In one case, Koester had persuaded his fiancee to make a FOIA request for him – he explained that he feared retaliation if the department knew that the request came from him. His colleagues told Koester that at some point in their careers, other deputies could have filed grievances but accepted decisions they didn’t like and carried on.

“Travis became angry and defensive and said if we were such a tight family, then why didn’t any of us go knock down the door of the administration for his benefit to be a voice for him since he was wronged by the entire department,” Deputy Darric Miller wrote in a memo memorializing the meeting.

Koester was posed a question: If you knew previously how other members would feel about your grievances and FOIA requests, would you do it again?

“Travis, without hesitation, replied that yes he would because he has to look out for himself no matter what,” Miller wrote in his memo to Lt. John Hayes, the unit’s commander. “It appears Travis has a narcissistic ability to attempt to explain, defended (sic) and justify his egotism and his selfishness. Lack of trust in an incredibly reactive and dynamic environment is extremely dangerous for anyone involved.”

Hayes then prepared a memo, signed by 16 team members, recommending that Koester be removed from the unit. With Sheriff Wes Barr making the final call, Koester was pulled from the team. The deputy filed a grievance, claiming that the department had wrongfully removed him from the team in retaliation for prior grievances.

An administrative law judge last spring sided with Koester, recommending that the deputy be returned to the team and awarded pay and benefits he would have received had he stayed on the unit. Ten members of the 17-member team, including Hayes, submitted resignation letters when the recommendation came down, with some writing that they wouldn’t quit the squad if Koester stayed off the team. Koester knew all about it, having submitted a records request for the resignation letters.

“I will not serve on the team in any capacity with Deputy Travis Koester as a member,” wrote Lt. Audie Prange, who resigned after 11 years on the team. “I understand the department’s moral dilemma in this matter when it concerns public safety.” Seven of the 10 deputies who submitted resignation letters last spring remain off the 17-member team.

The state labor board on Oct. 17 rejected the recommendation issued last spring, ruling that Barr didn’t know about Koester’s grievances when the sheriff yanked him from the team and that a lack of trust, not grievances, triggered the deputy’s dismissal from the elite squad. And so, for now at least, Koester remains off the team. He can appeal the board’s decision in court.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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