Police debate dominates city council

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119143587211112.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Mayor Larry Morrissey and Police Chief Chet Epperson supporters on the police union issues, were dwarfed as hundreds of police union members flooded City Hall and voiced their opinions on placards.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11914359438914.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) praised the hard work of Rockford's police officers.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11914359868914.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Police Chief Chet Epperson did not arrive in council chambers until after public participation.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119143609023584.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Police union members and supporters circled City Hall before taking their message inside: “276 to 6” (police union vote of “no confidence” in Police Chief Chet Epperson), “Morrissey unfair to organized labor!” and “Epperson unfair to your police!”‘);

Members and supporters of Rockford’s police union, the Police Benevolent & Protective Association (PB&PA) Unit 6, marched from the Public Safety Building to City Hall Oct. 1 to prove more than just a handful of officers are displeased with their department’s leadership.

Union members estimated more than 100 marchers took their message to the streets. Picketers carried signs and donned “276 to 6” t-shirts and buttons, referencing the overwhelming Sept. 14 vote of “no confidence” in Police Chief Chet Epperson. Some signs accused Epperson and Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) of unfair treatment.

Although off-duty police officers represented a majority of the picketers crowded into council chambers, none spoke during public comments, citing fears of retribution. Instead, civilian supporters spoke on their behalf.

Marvin Aaby, whose son-in-law is a Rockford police veteran of more than 20 years, argued Epperson’s approach has driven away good officers, and alienated the department from other law enforcement agencies.

“Now, our chief prefers to target his own department,” Aaby alleged. “The unprecedented number of internal investigations is staggering.

“Until a new leader is established, the members of the Police Department won’t be the only losers,” Aaby told the council. “The residents of Rockford will be, and those are the people you’re supposed to be representing.”

Since being sworn in as chief in April 2006, Epperson has been losing favor with his rank-and-file officers because of an increasing number of disciplinary cases.

Two officers were charged with having used police computers, on city time, to post messages to a blog on the daily publication’s Web site.

Citing a rumor the investigation to uncover the sources of the postings cost taxpayers $30,000, Aaby accused Epperson of inconsistency when it comes to disciplinary matters and departmental assignments.

Aaby also alleged Epperson attempted to “bribe” officers to persuade a colleague to resign. Despite offers of anonymity, no officer has stepped forward to substantiate that claim.

One of the computer misuse cases, which was to go before the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners at the same time Rockford City Council met across the street, was resolved within the department hours before the hearing. Another case involving charges alleging the officer was absent without a doctor’s note was also said to be resolved.

The case of the second officer accused of computer misuse will go before the Commission Oct. 22. Allegedly, the officer posted messages critical of Epperson and Morrissey. He is also accused of visiting pornographic Web sites using a department computer. Fellow officers feel he’s being singled out because of the nature of his alleged blog comments.

The union has been fighting to have the skyrocketing number of disciplinary cases heard by an independent arbitrator, rather than by the mayorally-appointed commission.

Following the 276-6 no-confidence vote, people have been anonymously posting comments to a new blog dedicated to the union’s plight. A number of the postings were reportedly personal attacks on the mayor and his family, which community activist and Epperson-supporter John Weaver denounced.

“Shame on you,” Weaver told the bloggers, while taking the high road. “Sincerely, we do thank you for your error. It means that we have done a good job of being professional. We would expect the same from you.”

Morrissey concurred: “We cannot tolerate personal attacks or degrading speech directed at any citizen of Rockford by officers of our Police Department or others. Unfortunately, it only takes a handful of people to lower themselves and discredit the department by disseminating hateful speech, innuendo and false information.

“That doesn’t help the reputation of the Police Department. That doesn’t help the reputation of the city.”

While not surprised by the outcome of the no-confidence vote, Mayor Morrissey initially responded by calling the act of conducting such a vote “foolish,” further fueling tensions. Morrissey has since tried to clarify his remarks saying the term “foolish” was referring to the decision to take the vote while negotiations were about to take place, rather than a personal reference against the officers.

Pro-union speaker Colleen Hawkinson addressed the comment during her public statement.

“Calling 276 police officers ‘foolish’ in any way, shape or form is just not good political practice for any mayor,” Hawkinson said. “When 98 percent of the Rockford police officers who serve this community have absolutely no confidence in the job the chief of police is performing, we need to step back and ask why.”

Hawkinson alleged Epperson has almost completely cut off communication with the rank-and-file, and accused the administration of trying accused officers in the media—issues Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13) believes are apparent.

“This is a personnel matter, or administrative matter, that should be dealt with, but not in the public,” said McNeely, responding to case details made available to the press.

“I still support you,” McNeely reassured Epperson, “but I think that there is a lack of communication between you and your officers.”

Epperson, who did not arrive in council chambers until after public participation, responded: “Communication is a two-way process. I only can do so much communication, and I’m not doing any hearing, because they’re not talking.”

McNeely urged both sides to resume talks, behind closed doors, to resolve what she called “more than just a little tension.”

While Epperson’s dialogue with the officers serving under him seems at issue, Ald. Victory Bell (D-5) lauded the accessibility and open dialogue he’s enjoyed under the chief’s leadership.

Mayor Morrissey promised the conflicts will be resolved either by the Circuit Court, the Fire and Police Commission, through arbitration or at the negotiating table.

“We’re building a command structure within the department that will give more voice and more problem-solving opportunities to our officers in the field,” the mayor pledged.

Morrissey indicated officers’ concerns are important to him, their chiefs, the council and the community, “But so, too, are the concerns of our citizens.”

Morrissey said Epperson has brought about positive changes, both in his department and in the community, that have been a long time coming.

“We would not be doing our jobs as an administration, nor as a council, if we did not engage and address many long-standing management issues,” Morrissey explained, noting crackdowns on overtime, absenteeism and disciplinary issues.

The mayor added such efforts toward greater efficiency and accountability are not unique to the Police Department.

Standing behind his chief, the mayor praised Epperson’s initiatives, which he says have resulted in lower crime. Union members, however, allege Epperson skewed the statistics to achieve more favorable numbers.

Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11) offered a suggestion to assure everyone crime reports are unbiased.

“We might want to consider having an outside agency handle the monitoring of data collection,” Holt proposed, “so that the individual, or the department, that’s charged with reducing crime is not the same group that’s responsible for reporting the results.”

Epperson noted the FBI and State Police regularly audit the department’s statistics, but he doesn’t believe any other body has the authority or expertise to scrutinize those numbers.

Rockford’s finest have been without a contract for about two years, which the administration contends is largely responsible for the union’s frustration. Union leaders maintain disciplinary matters are not being handled fairly, but that the lack of a contract is not a factor.

Both sides in the debate want to assure citizens the Police Department can still be counted on to serve and protect, despite the recent discord.

Although talks have stalled, Epperson said he remains available should the union come back to the table.

It is unclear whether the union will take Epperso

n up on his offer.

Although the mayor banged the gavel to restore decorum twice during proceedings, he was encouraged to see the system at work.

“This is the democratic process at its finest,” Morrissey said.

Council briefs

A committee report recommending an engineering agreement with HNTB Companies was approved. The contract, related to Alpine dam repairs, is not to exceed $394,024.

Aldermen also approved ordinances authorizing agreements to reimburse developers John Kapotas and Landmark Riverside LLC for costs associated with installing larger water mains as part of the city’s ongoing water upgrade project.

Mayor Morrissey noted Rockford had won its second national America In Bloom award in three years.

The council passed a report recommending an intergovernmental agreement with Winnebago County for administrative adjudication of truancy program provisions. McNeely voted “no.”

Ald. Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7) was not present.

from the Oct. 3, 2007, issue

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