Editorial: Both sides in police debate spinning

Talks between Rockford’s Police Benevolent & Protective Association leaders and Police Chief Chet Epperson have all but broken down, as each side seems more agreeable to battling it out in the media. While negotiations are at an impasse, both sides are talking to everyone but each other.

I, for one, am about ready to let my inkwell dry up on this issue until the union and administration sit down like adults and at least try to reach a compromise. If that can’t be achieved, then arbitration is clearly the answer.

A round of talks scheduled for Sept. 19 was called off by union President Aurelio DeLaRosa in response to an alleged meeting between the chief and detectives the day before.

After the union’s well-publicized Sept. 14 vote of “no confidence” in Epperson, a new blog appeared in cyberspace over Rockford. The blog, named “276to6” in reference to the overwhelming vote, allows users to anonymously post their opinions and claims without fear of retribution.

On the blog, anonymous users are making some pretty serious accusations regarding what happened during the Sept. 18 meeting. A number of posters are alleging detectives were offered amnesty in their own disciplinary cases if a troublesome colleague is persuaded to resign.

Epperson acknowledged a meeting with investigators had taken place, but would not respond to the anonymous allegation he tried to broker any sort of deal. Epperson said the “focus meeting” was just another in a long line of pow-wows with officers of all ranks.

“I’m not sure what triggered it,” Epperson said of the union’s cancellation. “Maybe they didn’t know that I was having the meetings, and they saw that I was having a meeting, and I was trying to circumvent the process? I don’t know.”

The chief says he’s still waiting for the union to come back to the table, and that he refuses to fight this out through the media.

According to the latest blog postings over the weekend, there was an overwhelming consensus the local media are not adequately covering the story. Are they kidding?

Saturday, I received an e-mail from an occasional anonymous source asking if I’d seen the blog. My response, which was then posted to the blog without my consent (including my private e-mail address), spoke to a fundamental flaw inherent with such a site.

The posting, along with my subsequent public response, have since been deleted, but some of my comments are especially worth repeating:

“Anonymous, unverifiable claims on this blog site is not how to go about getting the kind of press they want. People are actually going to have to talk with the media if their stories are going to be told credibly to the public.

“A web site where people anonymously throw out accusations is not something a journalist can work with, unless some of these officers are willing to go on the record about these claims. Until that happens, it’s my belief union members will continue to be dissatisfied with the news coverage.”

Friday night, I extended an offer of confidentiality to any detective willing to go on the record about the incident in which Epperson is alleged to have offered amnesty in exchange for a fellow officer’s badge. So far, I haven’t had any takers, but my offer stands.

If, however, the story is a complete falsehood, Internet anonymity has its limits when it comes to making libelous statements. If you’re spreading lies about the chief on the blog, you may not be as anonymous as you think if records of posters’ Internet Protocol (IP) addresses can be subpoenaed and traced.

Two officers are accused by the chief of posting messages to the local daily’s web site while on police time. Postings alleged to have been made by one of the officers in question contained inflammatory remarks against Epperson and Mayor Larry Morrissey (I).

This officer, clearly the focus of this tug-o-war, has since curiously been brought up on new charges of viewing pornography from his work computer while on duty. The officer’s personal firearm, which doubled as his service weapon, was deemed something that should be confiscated.

Legal Director Patrick Hayes told me Epperson was within his rights, and had good reason to seize the weapon. Am I really to believe this officer might go out and shoot someone because of this? I don’t buy it, and it shouldn’t be sold. I sincerely respect all members of the administration, so please extend me the same courtesy by shooting straight with members of the press who care enough to ask the tough, but relevant, questions.

With the proliferation of illegal guns on Rockford’s streets, I have to wonder why Police Department brass feel justified in seizing lawfully-owned firearms from the very people who are most qualified to possess them. I’m sure the practice has some legal fine print to back it up, but that doesn’t make it right. It does, however, make the administration look like a bunch of bullies.

Here is where this nonsense really starts reaching into residents’ pockets. The officer who had his personal firearm seized and was accused of viewing pornography, along with another officer who was required to surrender his personal gun, filed a lawsuit. DeLaRosa filed a separate suit in response to how disciplinary cases are being handled. How many tax dollars is the city poised to waste fighting lawsuits before it does what it takes to ensure officers feel they’re being treated fairly?

If the city’s leadership cares about being fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars, it will recognize the situation calls for immediate remediation.

Although this angle on his statement was obviously not his intent, Mayor Morrissey may have put it best during his Sept. 20 Q&A session with the press when he said: “We have a job to do. We’re charged by the citizens to do it as efficiently as we can.”

The administration may not like the 276-6 vote of “no confidence,” but to ignore it is folly.

When 98 percent of the city’s police force says there’s a problem with the chief, it’s impossible to credibly deny the department is in crisis. I don’t think the issue of arbitration can wait for labor contract negotiations, which are nowhere in sight, and I suspect an arbitrator will cost the city less than fighting what’s sure to be a growing number of lawsuits, which can most certainly be avoided.

Most aldermen, apparently fearing they’ll upset one side or the other, have kept pretty mum on the debate. I’ve covered every single Rockford City Council meeting for about the past year. During the meetings, aldermen have never been at a loss when it comes to taking advantage of soundbite opportunities on hot-button issues in the media.

Why, then, aren’t we hearing their views on the council floor now? As elected officials, aldermen are put in a position where they’re essentially expected to support all facets of city government, including its chief of police.

I particularly hope Sixth Ward pro-union Democrat Lenny Jacobson will put his 2 cents in at the next meeting. As someone with loyalties to each side in this conflict, he may be in a unique position to suggest the most equitable solution.

The union’s rank-and-file officers feel Epperson is going overboard with internal disciplinary cases. Such cases are heard by the three-person Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, appointed by the mayor and approved by aldermen. Epperson’s wife and at least one commissioner are contributors to the Morrissey campaign. For reasons obvious to me, the union is demanding disciplinary cases instead be handled by an arbitrator.

Given the nature of the comments the officer accused of viewing pornography is alleged to have made about Epperson and Morrissey, it’s certainly understandable to request an independent third party, at least in this case. The administration’s unwillingness to allow the unbiased hearing requested by the union has the unfortunate stench of a personal vendetta against this officer.

The administration argues disciplinary issues have always been dealt with by the board and that if the union wants an arbitrator, that’s something that must be bargained for wh

en a new labor contract is drafted. When indeed? Officers have been without a contract for nearly two years.

Epperson, who says he’s also frustrated by the lack of a contract, noted the agreement will likely have to go to arbitration, which could take another year.

Union leaders say, however, the current strife has nothing to do with the contract. Again, the high number of disciplinary cases brought by Epperson since his 2006 swearing in is the union’s biggest gripe.

Epperson maintains anything is negotiable, but that he will not bend when it comes to the “integrity” of his department. In other words, officers should not expect him to voluntarily ease up on internal investigations—a stalemate further indicative of the need for arbitration.

Mayor Morrissey voiced disgust with the union’s vote of “no confidence,” when he probably should have said: “OK, we hear you. If that many of you are this upset, we’re obviously doing something wrong here.”

The mayor claims the union is simply trying to maneuver itself into the best possible position for gaining the upper hand in upcoming contract negotiations, and he could be right, for all I know.

It’s easy for anyone to be an armchair mayor, but the unified voice of Rockford’s finest deserves Mayor Morrissey’s respect and attention.

While he gladly accepted the support of police union members during his campaign, Morrissey argues citizens are siding with the chief, citing dozens of supporters, including Epperson’s mother, at recent city council meetings.

Let us not forget, as even the chief pointed out in an olive branch gesture, Rockford’s men and women in blue should also be praised for the positive changes some residents attribute solely to Epperson.

In theory, these officers are in a position to make the entire administration look awfully foolish if their grievances remain unaddressed.

All the union really seems to be asking for right now is the assurance disciplinary matters will be handled fairly, by an arbitrator. The city’s unwillingness to concede this much may lend some credibility to the union’s assertions of unfairness.

If the disciplinary charges brought against officers, and the methods by which they’re substantiated, are lawful and proper, this would be an ideal opportunity for the Morrissey administration to showcase the openness many voters are still waiting for.

Some have surmised municipal employees involved in the “Coppergate” scandal (a/k/a the “Copper Caper”) made off with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars over the years, without being fired from their city jobs. One of the thieves is alleged to have been active in Morrissey’s election campaign. Others would argue City Administrator Jim Ryan also got off easy after a drunken driving arrest involving a city vehicle.

In my estimation, charges of insubordination or misusing police computers while on company time are relatively minor by comparison. Although the administration has effectively publicized the allegations against this officer, he is not charged with having committed any crime.

While city officials have unwaveringly declined discussing “personnel issues” with the press in the past, they’re more than happy to accommodate us in this matter. Why do you suppose that is? The city’s policy must have changed very recently, or as a matter of temporary convenience. Either way, I’m glad it did change, because now citizens should demand and expect more satisfying answers regarding, say, copper thefts by city employees.

The latest charges against this officer, publicly alleging he viewed pornographic material while on duty, appear to be little more than an effort to shift public sentiment against the union by planting disgust in the wholesome hearts of the same Rockfordians officers have sworn to serve and protect.

Nevertheless, Mayor Morrissey seemed eager to keep cramming “pornography” in our ears during his remarks about the union Sept. 20.

“Are they defending the activities of an officer who is not only [allegedly] insubordinate to his superiors directly, but is [allegedly] watching pornography while he’s booking overtime hours? How do they respond to that? …Now we’re not supposed to be able to charge a complaint against that officer?”

Your Honor, I believe the union would respond by first reminding you the American legal system presumes a defendant innocent until proven guilty—something no lawyer should forget, even after being elected mayor. Everyone deserves a fair hearing. Comments implying allegation equals fact will arguably compromise this officer’s chance of impartial consideration by a board you appointed.

It is insulting for the union to be portrayed as sending mixed messages about what it’s trying to accomplish in this matter. Their desire for guaranteed impartial hearings of the skyrocketing number of disciplinary cases is evident. Pornography is not the issue, and I think it is shameful to put that kind of spin on this.

If this officer were using police computers for non-police work while on the clock, that is obviously a no-no. To punctuate the alleged policy violation by publicly indicating he was viewing pornography laughably makes it appear as though this officer is charged with having a libido to some.

Is the real issue here an allegation the officer was chronically insubordinate? Is this part of the war of departure of the old guard in the police department in the form of retirement? Specifically, the departure of former Deputy Chief Dominic Iasparro, who was acting chief before Epperson, to the sheriff’s quarters, because of control issues? Is Iasparro still stirring the pot? If so, say so publicly, get everything on the table.

In fairness, the anonymous pro-union blog is an equally infantile tactic to sway public opinion.

Both sides should be reminded this conflict will only escalate if their tabloid-style approaches continue. It makes for good TV, I suppose, but accomplishes little else. Compromise will be achieved at the negotiating table, not at the end of a microphone. How many times have we heard prosecutors and law enforcement officials say it’s unfair to try a case in the press? Again, how do the rank-and-file officers make their offering to the public’s right to know?

There’s one significant detail in this mess that is awfully hard to ignore, however: Why does it appear this officer has been singled out? If I were a betting man, my money would be on his alleged comments critical of Epperson and Morrissey, which were undoubtedly read by hundreds, if not thousands.

As this officer is dragged through the mud over alleged policy violations, I’d be curious to know, conversely, how many commendations he received in recognition of the crimes he’s credited with solving. If he received any, they certainly weren’t publicized with such rigor.

As a journalist who is insultingly being used to gain leverage by each side, I’m challenging the mayor, the chief and union leaders to take their tea party behind closed doors where it belongs. I speak for many when I ask you not to come out until you have good news.

Last time I checked, it was still legal to swallow your pride. I think a number of folks on both sides of the thin blue line should do just that.

I like Chief Epperson. He has always been very cordial with me, in addition to being accessible. His progressive approach is a big change for many in the department, but his initiatives deserve a chance to make Rockford a safer, more enjoyable community. That being said, I don’t work for him. Police officers do.

The chief has acknowledged the importance of labor support, so all parties need to get back to the table and quit slapping each other in the face through the media. My job is to ask hard questions of every side in pursuit of the truth, not be anyone’s PR man.

Both sides need to consider the nuances of the freedom of speech as provided for everyone in our Constitution. As is obvious in this case, the constitution does not say that speech has to be polite—but it must be truthful under the rule of law.

Editor’s note: In keeping with the

main points of this editorial, the police union’s statement on the impasse and the city’s statement of the anonymous blogs will be posted on our Web site, www.rockrivertimes.com, under “Online Exclusives.”

from the Sept. 26 – Oct. 2, 2007, issue

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