Police officer fired for alerting friend

Commissioners doze off during testimony

n Did politics play role in commission’s decision?

Rockford Police Officer Steve Johnson lost his battle Aug. 21 to keep his job after the four-person Rockford Police and Fire Commission decided to remove Johnson from the force for “violations of rules” that govern police conduct.

Johnson’s attorney Dan Cain said the evidence didn’t support the commissioners’ action and vowed to file suit in court to reverse the commission’s decision. The hearing raised major questions about police policies and how much politics may or may not have factored into the commission’s decision.

Sources alleged recent equally and more serious rule “violations” by other officers were previously handled internally by police administrators and not brought to the commission. However, sources couldn’t cite specific incidents.

How police administrators handled rule “violations” by other officers was the subject of more closed testimony during the hearing. Prior to his termination last Thursday, Johnson had been on paid suspension since March 7.

Singled out?

During testimony, Johnson said he knew “several incidents” in which officers contacted people who were wanted on outstanding warrants but didn’t actively pursue suspects. Testimony also revealed that responding to service calls and completing reports is a higher priority than searching for suspects who are wanted for non-violent offenses.

The most startling assertion during Johnson’s testimony was an incident in which Johnson said a police officer called a suspect at the suspect’s house after police had been dispatched to the suspect’s residence—an incident Johnson implied was similar to his own action, the night of Friday, May 17, 2002.

In the incident concerning the unidentified officer, the suspect surrendered, according to Johnson. In Johnson’s case, his subject—friend Jeremy Jones—fled, instead of surrendering. The opposite outcomes in the incidents may have been the difference between Johnson being fired and not being fired. Jones has a history of non-violent criminal behavior, such as forgery and shoplifting.

Sources alleged other Rockford police officers have contacted and subsequently released suspects in an effort to “generate informants” for other possible crimes. A source also alleged that if officers do release suspects who are wanted, it is because officers may forget the suspect is wanted or are distracted from checking to see if suspects have outstanding warrants. Such actions, sources alleged, occurs regularly and is done by both patrol officers and metro-narcotics officers.

Rockford Police Chief Steve Pugh said “There’s no conspiracy, Johnson wasn’t singled out, and if a similar situation arose, I’d deal with it in the same manner.” Pugh said the department will not tolerate officers who put fellow officers at risk and who knowingly fail to enforce warrants.

The incident

The decision to fire Johnson came after a two day, 16-hour hearing in which Johnson testified that while he was working May 17, 2002, he used his personal cell phone to call Jones to inquire if Jones knew he was wanted on an outstanding $25,000 felony forgery warrant. Johnson testified that his intent of placing the call was to try to convince Jones to surrender peacefully to police, who were en route to capture Jones at his place of work—the Hoffman House restaurant and Scoreboard Lounge, 7550 E. State St.

Jones escaped that night and later vacated the felony forgery warrant—not through an attorney or police—but himself at the Winnebago County Courthouse the following Monday, May 20—the earliest time the warrant could be vacated.

City attorney John Giliberti alleged Johnson tipped off Jones after Johnson heard police were after his friend with a canine unit. The canine unit was summoned because testimony revealed Jones previously fled from police during attempts to capture him. Giliberti also alleged Johnson said to Jones during the call, “If there’s a back door, you better use it,” implying Johnson wanted Jones to escape.

Giliberti based his allegation on information Jones gave Giliberti and Tom Gibbons, head of the police department’s Internal Affairs division, during an April 8 interview.

In complete contradiction to Giliberti’s allegation that Johnson prompted Jones to flee, and Jones’ own April 8 statement to Giliberti and Gibbons, Jones testified June 30 he fled on his own volition, not because Johnson instructed him. However, Giliberti continued to emphasize Johnson urged Jones to flee out the back door of the Hoffman House.

‘Truth challenged’ suspect

Cain described Jones as being “truth challenged” and “acts in his own best interest,” depending on circumstances, in spite of how a current action may negatively affect how others view him in the future. Giliberti argued that even “truth challenged” individuals such as Jones may sometimes tell the truth. Cain countered that information Jones gave Giliberti and Gibbons was given under duress—an assertion supported by Jones’ June 30 testimony.

During June 30 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 Detective Supervisor Stephen 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 March 6 at his residence on a Sept. 29, 2000, retail theft/failure-to-appear in court warrant from Kane County, which was amended to include Winnebago County 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 two-and-half year-old retail theft charge from 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.

Jones said June 30 he “lied to police” because he was “scared…confused…[and] they told me to go along with what they told me.”

Police partner

Testimony from Jones, Johnson and Johnson’s partner the night of the incident appeared to not support Giliberti’s allegation that Johnson instructed Jones to leave. Jones and Johnson testified Johnson’s call was approximately 10-15 seconds.

Ty Eagleson, Johnson’s partner the night of the incident, testified June 30 he entered the police satellite station at Fairgrounds housing project the night of the incident and heard Johnson speaking on his personal cell phone but wasn’t sure at first 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 leave immediately. In addition, Eagleson said he never said anything to Johnson about the phone call, nor did he report the phone call to his superiors (see TRRT July 2 article for more details on June 30 hearing).

During closing arguments, Giliberti emphasized that Eagleson did not hear the entire conversation between Johnson and Jones. Observers countered that it is difficult to imagine that Eagleson didn’t hear nearly all, if not the entire, 10-15 second call.

After the hearing, Giliberti was asked why city officials didn’t interview Eagleson or Johnson before suspending Johnson March 7. Giliberti said it is “standard protocol” to not interview the target of an internal investigation or his/her partner before suspension.

Officers’ testimonies

Johnson said he called Jones because he didn’t want his fellow officers and Jone

s to “get hurt” during Jones’ attempted arrest. Johnson also said in retrospect, calling Jones was a “dumb move,” which he would never do if given another chance. Johnson expressed desire to become part of the department’s drug and/or gang units. Johnson had worked patrolling Concord Commons, and other crime-ridden public housing projects.

Sources said Johnson was assigned to work alone for five hours at Concord Commons on a Saturday night last winter–an unprecedented assignment that sources alleged hasn’t happened before or since. Within hours after Johnson completed his assignment, sources said a stabbing occurred at Concord that prompted Chief Deputy Dominic Iasparro to intervene and cease the practice. The sources added that Eagleson was not Johnson’s partner that Saturday night because Eagleson had the night off.

Iasparro couldn’t confirm or deny whether the incident occurred. Iasparro said, “It’s not appropriate to comment at all about internal matters of the police department.”

John Wassner, fellow patrol officer, testified he knew Johnson inside and outside the department. Wassner described Johnson as a friend who was a “good cop,” that is, “truthful and honest.”

Giliberti asked Wassner if he was familiar with the May 17 incident. Wassner answered “yes.” However, Wassner added that he didn’t have any first-hand connection to the May 17, 2002, incident.

Sgt. Doug Block, police union representative and patrol officer supervisor, testified that he felt Johnson’s action the night of the incident “did not violate [Rockford Police Department] rules and regulations.” Giliberti “strongly” objected to the allowance of Block’s opinion but was overruled by Roberta Holzwarth, the commission’s secretary.

Block went on to testify that Johnson was truthful, honest, dependable and wrote good reports, and said, “I believe he is still a very viable officer to be of service to the community.” Block also said termination of Johnson from the department is “inconsistent “ with the union’s contract with the city, which calls for “progressive rather than punitive discipline.”

Giliberti argued that state law allows the city to not be “constrained by the collective bargaining agreement” that called for progressive discipline. Cain counteredthat the city is obligated to the union’s contract.

The commission

Giliberti said Johnson “doesn’t deserve another chance” because Johnson could have tried to apprehend Jones himself during the ensuing weekend of May 17-19, 2002, or informed his superiors of his actions, but failed to do so.

During announcement of the commission’s decision, Holzwarth, the commission’s secretary, speaker and hearing officer, said the commission agreed with Giliberti and added the commission was “not swayed” by the evidence, testimony or Johnson’s intent.

Holzwarth is an attorney for the law firm of Holmstrom & Kennedy, 800 N. Church St. From 1994 to 2001, state records show Holzwarth personally made eight contributions totaling $2,420 to Rockford Mayor Doug Scott’s (D) campaign. Holzwarth’s attorney husband is also listed as a contributor for some of the donations. Also, state records list Kim Casey as Scott’s campaign treasurer, whose office is also at 800 N. Church Street.

Johnson’s father, Rockford Alderman and Winnebago County Clerk Dave Johnson (R-4), has repeatedly and publicly criticized Scott for years about Scott’s “lack of effort” to implement a viable economic development policy, drug enforcement efforts and investigation into alleged problems with police radios.

The three police commission members, Mariel Heinke, Forest Price, and Jamie Cassel, who concurred with Holzwarth to fire Johnson, were appointed by former Rockford Mayor Charles Box (D) in 1996, 1996 and 2000, respectively. Scott is former Rockford “garbage czar” and city attorney under Box, and a former District 67 state representative.

The same commission that fired Johnson helped hire Pugh earlier this year. Pugh led the charge to fire Johnson because the five rule violations against Johnson were extremely serious, which warranted his immediate dismissal, according to Pugh.

Holzwarth, Heinke, Price and Cassel were left messages last week for comment about this article, but did not return phone calls.

Observers complained commission members often appeared inattentive during the hearing and took few notes. At one point during testimony, Price turned his back to the witness and leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for a few minutes. Cassel, Heinke and Price appeared to doze off several times while witnesses were testifying.

The commission began deliberating at about 4:40 p.m. Twenty minutes later, Holzwarth informed media, “We’re committed to having a decision within an hour and a half.” At approximately 6:27 p.m., the commission reconvened to announce its decision to fire Johnson.

Observers wondered how and why the commission placed a time limit on their consideration of the evidence. The observers also found it odd the commission completed their deliberation almost to the minute Hozwarth said they would.

Public official, father, investigation

Meanwhile, Alderman Johnson continues his investigation of police radio problems and police administrative conduct that began about one year ago. Sources allege patrol officers often have difficulty communicating due to “dead spots” that frequently change location.

As a result, sources said officers formally or informally notify police administrators of the communication difficulties. How police administration handle patrol officers’ information about communication difficulties is of interest to Johnson.

Rockford Fire Chief William Robertson and George Ann Dahm, 911 division manager, were interviewed last week and ruled out any documentation in their offices that would pertain to Alderman Johnson’s concerns.

Police officials have asked Johnson to give his information to internal officials, the local FBI office or state police. Johnson has expressed a lack of confidence in both the state police and FBI because of their close relationship with Rockford police.

Johnson testified last Thursday that on March 7, the day after Pirages and Redmond apprehended and interrogated Jones on the amended Kane County warrant, Pugh informed Alderman Johnson that Officer Johnson was “off the department” and “would be either fired or have to resign.”

Johnson said Pugh pounded his fist on a table in the county clerk’s office to emphasize his point and added, “If he [Officer Johnson] resigned right away, that my name [Alderman Johnson] wouldn’t be muddied.”

Pugh said the conference with Alderman Johnson was a courtesy call to inform Alderman Johnson of the seriousness of the allegations.

Questions and answers

Pugh said police executed a “high-risk situation” warrant for Jones at a busy restaurant, rather than pursuing Jones at a more isolated location. Police were acting on information they acquired about the time Jones was working and had officers that could identify Jones.

Police didn’t secure all exit and entrance points around the Hoffman House while executing Jones’ warrant because they didn’t have enough personnel to cover all the entrances and exits, Pugh said. Jones escaped from the restaurant through a rear exit.

Jones allegedly had contact with other local police for traffic-related matters between the time the Kane County warrant was issued in 2000 and prior to his capture and interrogation by Pirages and Redmond on March 6. Why the Kane County warrant wasn’t amended during those run-ins with local police is not known.

Closed testimony given June 30 by expert witness on warrants and former Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy Rob Humphries was not disclosed Thursday by the commission, as expected. Humphries’ testimony was the subject that led to the sudden retirement of former Rockford Police Deputy Chief John Genens, the same day Humphries testified (see TRRT July 23 article for details).

Genens retired rather than face an internal investigati

on into his contact with Humphries’ brother about Rob Humphries’ testimony on behalf of Officer Johnson. How Genens learned Humphries was scheduled to testify is not known. Genens is reportedly married to Rob Humphries’ sister.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli said based on information he received from Rob Humphries and police administrators, he would not investigate Genens’ action as a possible witness tampering case. Why Logli decided to not investigate based on second-hand sources is still unknown.

Editor’s note: Jeff Havens is the only independent observer and media representative who witnessed the entire hearing’s open session.

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