Commissioners action punitive or progressive?

• Expert testimony calls commissioners’ firing of police officer in question

Recently released closed-session transcripts of retired Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy Rob Humphries’ June 30, 2003, testimony in the disciplinary hearing of former Rockford Police Officer Steve Johnson raises questions about the police commissioners’ August 2003 decision to fire Johnson. Humphries’ said telephone calls to suspects wanted on outstanding warrants were sanctioned by the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department.

However, Humphries later said: “The situation that was given to me at that particular time would not have been appropriate to me. But I wasn’t in the circumstance, and I don’t know. Just the way it was explained to me, I wouldn’t have necessarily made a phone call.”

The situation Humphries referred to was Johnson’s alerting a former friend, Jeremy Jones, that Jones was wanted on an outstanding warrant after officers had been dispatched to apprehend Jones at his place of employment.

Johnson’s supporters said the commissioners’ firing of Johnson was punitive rather than progressive discipline, which may violate the police union’s contract with the city. Johnson’s supporters also allege Johnson was fired because of his father’s investigation into Rockford Police Department administrators’ activities and alleged problems with the city’s police communication system. Johnson’s father is Rockford Alderman Dave Johnson (R-4), who is also Winnebago County Clerk.

Officer Johnson filed a lawsuit in October against the city in an effort to be reinstated with back pay. Arguments in the case are set for March 29.

City officials alleged Officer Johnson’s action concerning the call to Jones constituted misconduct. However, the Illinois Department of Employment Security ruled at a December hearing “The facts and the preponderance of evidence adduced at the hearing did not establish any misconduct on the part of claimant [Officer Johnson],” which allows Johnson to collect unemployment benefits.

Rockford City Attorney John Giliberti, who argued the case to fire Johnson last summer could not be reached for comment. However, the Illinois Department of Employment Security document reads: “The employer [City of Rockford] indicates in its motion the question of misconduct by the claimant was already decided by the City of Rockford Board of Fire and Police Commissioners (Board). Although the employer’s case law and oral motion are persuasive on this issue, the Board’s decision is under appeal and therefore not final.”

The Rockford police union, the Policemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois Unit 6 (PBPA), backed Johnson in a formal grievance filed last September. The grievance reads: “It is the belief of the PBPA Unit 6 Board that the discipline provided in this case was a violation of article 15.9 (A) in that it was not ‘progressive’ nor designed to ‘improve’ behavior and only served to ‘punish’ behavior.”

Union President Doug Block was not available for comment.

The following is Johnson’s attorney Dan Cain’s questioning of Humphries:

Cain: “Had you ever called an acquaintance who had a felony warrant outstanding?”

Humphries: “Oh, absolutely. …I knew these guys. I know how to put my finger on them. If they were decent, they-weren’t-going-to-shoot-you type people, and really that big of a problem, I would call them and say, hey, it’s Rob, call me or I’ll page them, I would have a pager number for some guys where I page them, say, you know, call me. And they would call me. I would say this is what you need for bond money, come see me.”

Humphries was later cross-examined by Rockford City Attorney John Giliberti.

Giliberti: “Rob, once an officer has been dispatched to serve a felony arrest warrant, would you ever call the subject of that warrant to let them know that officers are on the way to apprehend them?”

Humphries: “I don’t believe so. From the way you’re putting it, no, I don’t believe I would.”

Johnson testified June 30 that his intent was not to notify a friend that officers were en route to apprehend Jones on May 17, 2002, but to persuade Jones to surrender peacefully to the officers. Instead of surrendering, Jones fled out a rear exit door and successfully avoided capture.

On May 20, 2002, at the Winnebago County Courthouse, after paying a small fee and receiving a new court date, Jones vacated the warrant himself the officers were trying to enforce.

Jones was apprehended March 6, 2003, by Rockford Police detectives on a separate warrant from Kane County dated Sep. 29, 2000, that was amended in 2003 to include Winnebago County. The Kane County warrant was issued for alleged retail theft/failure-to-appear in court.

Details of Johnson’s hearing were published in the July 2 and Aug. 27 issues of The Rock River Times.

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