Police hearing raises policy questions

After about nine hours of testimony Monday, the Rockford Police and Fire Commission’s hearing concerning the possible termination of employment of suspended Rockford Police Officer Steve Johnson will reconvene Aug. 21. The city presented its side of the case to fire Johnson and alleged Johnson broke five police department rules and regulations concerning a May 17, 2002, incident.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s father, Winnebago County Clerk and Rockford Alderman Dave Johnson (R-4), said he has conducted his own investigation concerning the internal affairs of the police department but is not ready to reveal his findings. Police officials have asked that Alderman Johnson bring forth his information.

Officer Johnson’s attorney, Dan Cain, questioned the city’s thoroughness investigating Johnson’s motives and intents concerning the incident, which led to Johnson’s March 7 suspension. In addition, Monday’s testimony raised questions about the Rockford Police Department’s policies toward executing arrest warrants.

Early Tuesday, Rockford Police Chief Steve Pugh answered questions regarding Deputy Chief John Genens’ sudden retirement Monday morning. Pugh said the retirement was directly related to Johnson’s hearing. Pugh said Genens had “inappropriate contact” with one of Johnson’s witnesses, which would have catalyzed a “formal investigation” of Genens’ contact with the witness. Rather than face the investigation, Genens opted to retire, according to Pugh.

Allegedly, this witness is a Winnebago County Sheriff’s deputy who is an expert on the execution of arrest warrants, and who may testify on Johnson’s behalf. Pugh was not willing to disclose the deputy’s name.

City Attorney John Giliberti alleged Johnson used his personal cell phone to tip off a friend who was about to be arrested at the Hoffman House restaurant and Scoreboard lounge on an outstanding felony arrest warrant for a forgery charge. Cain claimed Johnson called the friend, Jeremy Lee Jones, not to tip him off but to inquire if Jones knew that he was wanted and to persuade Jones to peacefully submit to police–good “intentions that went south.”

Rockford Detective Supervisor Stephen Pirages and Michael Zemites, field supervisor for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Rockford office, testified that surprise is a factor to minimize risk of harm to the public, suspects and officers when executing arrest warrants. Pirages specifically testified that executing the arrest warrant against Jones at the crowded bar was a “high-risk situation.”

Pugh was asked if concern for safety was such a high priority, why did police try to arrest Jones in a busy public place rather than at Jones’ residence or more isolated area? Pugh said Rockford police had specific information that they tried to take advantage of at that time, which was forwarded to them because Jones’ picture and criminal background were published in the Rockford Labor News the week of the May 17, 2002, incident. In addition, Pugh said Rockford officers were accompanied by a Winnebago County Sheriff’s officer who could easily identify Jones.

Chicago Police Officer Thomas Donegan said, “There’s a chance we might execute an arrest warrant in a restaurant depending on the circumstances.” However, Donegan refused to question the appropriateness of Rockford police’s execution of Jones’ warrant.

Testimony from one of Jones’ former supervisors, Terri Hoffman, assistant general manager for the Hoffman House restaurant and Scoreboard lounge, 7550 E. State St., said the night of the incident, Jones was bartender at Scoreboard during an “extremely busy…casino night.”

Hoffman testified that on May 17, 2002, she received a phone call at the restaurant at about 7:41 p.m. from an unidentified male who wanted to speak with Jones. Jones later testified the call was from Johnson. As a result of the phone call, Jones said he asked a co-worker to pull his wife’s car around to the building’s rear exit. Jones said he fled the Hoffman House to avoid arrest until he could obtain an order to vacate the forgery arrest warrant a few days later. Evidence showed Jones gave conflicting accounts of what Johnson said on the phone. Until Johnson’s call, Jones said he was unaware of the outstanding warrant.

Earlier this year, Giliberti said Jones told city officials that Johnson advised Jones to use the establishment’s rear exit to avoid arrest. However, during Monday’s testimony and in a sworn statement given to Cain’s office, Jones said Johnson never told him to use the rear exit, and Jones hung up on Johnson shortly after learning about the outstanding warrant.

Jones accounted for the conflicting statements by saying he was “scared” when he gave his statement to police because Pirages and Sgt. Robert Redmond told him “they knew everything” and could charge Jones with obstruction of justice and contempt-of-court if he didn’t cooperate. However, Pirages testified that he never told Jones he could be charged with obstruction.

Pirages and Redmond picked up Jones on a retail theft warrant from Kane County, which was amended to include Winnebago County, earlier this year. Cain suggested the warrant was amended as a pretext to interrogate Jones about Johnson’s involvement in the May 17, 2002, incident rather than concern over a retail theft charge in another county. Pirages countered that it is common to amend geographically limiting warrants, and Jones “volunteered” information about his avoiding arrest through the “back door” the night of the incident.

When asked by Police Commissioner Mariel Heinke about the conflicting statements concerning the content of the phone conversation with Johnson, Jones said he “lied to police” because he was “sacred…confused….[and] they told me to go along with what they told me.”

Ty Eagleson, Johnson’s partner the night of the incident, testified he entered the police satellite station at Fairgrounds housing project and heard Johnson speaking on his personal cell phone but wasn’t sure if it was Jones to whom Johnson was speaking.

Eagleson said he couldn’t ascertain whether the conversation had just begun, but did hear the conversation’s conclusion. At no time, Eagleson said, did he hear Johnson say words suggesting someone use a back door or to immediately leave. In addition, Eagleson said he never said anything to Johnson about the phone call nor did he report the phone call to his superiors.

Cain suggested the police not only acted hastily, but conducted an incomplete investigation of the incident. Cain’s questioning of Jones revealed after the incident, Jones told his wife that Johnson advised him to leave the Hoffman House through a rear exit in an effort to deter blame for leaving work and loss of $300-$400 that night in income. Jones said the reason he lied to his wife about what Johnson said on the phone was to avoid yet another heated confrontation with his wife about finances. Jones said the couple has since divorced.

Under cross-examination by Cain, Pugh testified as to how police learned about the Jones/Johnson incident. According to Pugh’s testimony, Jones’ ex-wife informed a friend, who worked for the U.S. Marshal’s office, about what Jones had told her about the incident. The Marshal’s office relayed the information to the local FBI office, which then informed Rockford police on March 6 of this year.

Pugh said Johnson was suspended on March 7, 2003, and he subsequently contacted Johnson’s father, Dave Johnson, about the department’s action. Pugh acknowledged that Johnson had a satisfactory performance record prior to his suspension. Pugh also said no one in the department interviewed Johnson or Eagleson before Johnson’s suspension.

The hearing continues at 10 a.m. Aug. 21 at the Fire and Police Commissioner’s second-floor hearing room, 204 S. First St. Cain will present Johnson’s witnesses at the continuation.

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