Police union ready for openness after ‘no confidence’ vote

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119022425429660.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Police Chief Chet Epperson confers with Mayor Morrissey at Sept. 17 city council meeting.‘);

In an anticipated and well-publicized move, Rockford’s Police Benevolent and Protective Association (PB&PA) Unit 6 made an overwhelming vote of “no confidence” in Police Chief Chet Epperson Sept. 14, putting to bed any myth that only a “small segment” of Rockford Police officers are unhappy with his leadership.

“Today, the rank-and-file were asked a simple question,” said PB&PA Unit 6 Vice President Bruce Brannum. “Do you or do you not have confidence in the way Chief Chester Epperson is running the department?”

By 1 p.m., more than half the union’s membership had made their voice heard. By 8 p.m., 98 percent had voted, according to Brannum. Only four members did not cast ballots.

Of the union’s 286 voting members, 276 indicated they have no confidence in their chief by the time polls closed at 9. Epperson received only six votes of support. Although the ballot was only advisory, Brannum hopes the chief, mayor and city council will take note.

Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) said he wasn’t surprised by the move, but indicated the city answers to its citizens, not the police union.

“I think it was foolish,” Morrissey blasted, arguing the vote is not likely to help the union’s credibility. “I think the citizens have spoken. Citizens are seeing the results of an administration working with a chief who gets it, who understands that you have to connect into the community, and it means a change in culture.”

Morrissey, a number of aldermen and members of the community rallied behind the embattled chief during the Sept. 10 Rockford City Council meeting, after Epperson and Deputy Chief Mike Booker were voted out of the union by its board of directors three days earlier.

In response, Deputy Chiefs Greg Lindmark, Theo Glover and Lori Sweeney turned in their union cards as a symbolic gesture of support for Epperson and Booker.

Responding to the latest vote of “no confidence,” a similar show of support was made during the Sept. 17 city council meeting.

The mayor lauded declines in crime since Epperson took over the department in April 2006. Humbled by the showing of support, the chief promised a vote of “no confidence” would not sway his dedication to improving police services. On WNTA Sept. 14, however, Epperson indicated it would send him a message if a majority of the union was shown not to approve of his management.

“The number was there,” Epperson conceded after the ballot, maintaining he’s open to negotiation, but vowing the integrity of his department will not be compromised. “I’m open to suggestions and ideas, and I certainly recognize that I need the support of labor to move the city forward.

“I’ve stopped and looked to say, ‘OK, how can I, as a chief running the department, have a better approach?’” he added.

The chief suspects a “communication gap” and feelings of exclusion may be contributing to his former union’s disapproval in the midst of changes Epperson has initiated since being sworn in.

“We’re doing programs and initiatives that have not been done in this department for a number of years,” Epperson explained. “When you’ve been doing it the same old way all the time, and then suddenly there’s a screeching halt, and you go the other way, people are upset.”

Epperson admits change can be difficult, but was quick to point out sick time had decreased by 40 percent over the last 18 months.

Despite ongoing tensions with the city’s top cop, including two lawsuits, officers say they, too, are dedicated to serving the citizens of Rockford.

“We’re here on the job today, tomorrow and beyond,” Brannum pledged. “We hope this mandate by the members of PB&PA Unit 6 will impress upon the chief, Chester Epperson, the mayor and the city council our commitment to achieve fair and equitable working conditions. This vote today was the first step towards that goal.”

Brannum added the union will pursue a “series of actions” in the near future to that end.

Union President Aurelio DeLaRosa, who was the subject of an internal investigation last October, filed suit against Epperson, the city and the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, alleging improper procedures in disciplinary matters.

A second lawsuit, filed by Officers Justin Bailey and Matt Williams, claims the chief unlawfully required the surrender of their personal firearms while they are on administrative leave pending disciplinary investigations. City Legal Director Patrick Hayes explained Epperson was within his rights because the officers chose to employ their own guns as duty weapons.

Christopher Taylor, attorney for Bailey and Williams, did not respond for comment.

So, what is the union asking for by declaring its lack of confidence in Epperson?

“I think it’s within the chief’s purview to direct the city Legal Department to help resolve some of the issues we have; the grievances we have, the unfair labor practices and the demand of bargains that are outstanding,” Brannum explained. “That’s our hope; that he would start bargaining a little bit fairer and go with a different direction.”

Epperson believes the unrest comes down to the issue of discipline and lack of a labor contract.

“That’s the true crux,” the chief argued. “We’ve gone without a contract for some time now. I’m appalled that we don’t have a contract. It’s gonna be an arbitration. That’s gonna be another six months or a year.”

Essential service workers, such as police and fire personnel, cannot legally go on strike, but Brannum assured members of the press the lack of a labor contract for almost two years was not a factor in the vote of “no confidence.”

“Basically, the present administration has chosen to deviate from past practices, from legal courses that are afforded to us by vote, labor law and our contracts,” Brannum alleged. “And because of those decisions and those actions, and our dissatisfaction with the ability to address those issues, we’ve decided to now come out publicly and take our turn in the media, to tell our side.”

Brannum vowed, “We’re no longer gonna sit back idly and let the chief control the media.”

Prior to Sept. 14, union leaders had remained somewhat distant from the press regarding mounting tensions with the chief.

The PB&PA has enlisted the help of Bill Page, a media consultant, who oversaw the late-night press conference. Strategically challenging news deadlines, staging the media conference around 9:30 p.m. Friday night, the union ensured dramatic live reports at the top of 10 p.m. newscasts from the UAW Hall, a block from City Hall.

Page, a former columnist for The Kane County Chronicle, received national attention when a jury ruled against him, the newspaper and Shaw Suburban Media Group in a libel suit filed by Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert R. Thomas (R) in 2004.

In his column, Page allegedly accused Thomas of trading a vote in exchange for a political favor—a felonious act, if substantiated. Citing a confidential source, the defendants were unable to produce a witness to back the allegation. Justice Thomas, a former kicker for the Chicago Bears, was awarded a $7 million judgment this past year for damage to reputation, future economic losses and emotional distress. The award was later reduced to $4 million.

In June, a counter-suit was filed to block the judgment on the grounds an appeal would not receive a fair hearing because Thomas is at the head of the system.

The Kane County Chronicle has a daily circulation of less than 15,000. The verdict has caught the attention of journalists nationwide, as the First Amendment rights of the press appear to be in flux.

Despite the nearly unanimous vote of “no confidence” in Epperson, union leaders expressed a willingness to iron things out.

Asked whether officers would rather see Epperson make some concessions or see him replaced, Brannum responded, “Our goal is to try to mend fences, not tear ‘em down.”

Brannum noted, however, “I’d say from April 10th of 2006, when Chief Epperson came into office, the problems began.”

The reduction of overtime and duty reassignments has saved t

axpayers money, but are still bones of contention with the union.

According to union leaders, the PB&PA pressured deputy chiefs to arrange for a Sept. 12 sit-down with Epperson. Both sides are bound by confidentiality, but Brannum reported some resolutions had been discussed.

Among the issues most pressing to the union is the higher number of discipline cases since Epperson took over. Administration and police sources said attitudes on both sides in dealing with discipline issues were a problem.

“That’s a sour note for us,” Brannum said. “The way he’s deviating from law.”

Epperson feels Brannum’s accusation is in reference to the union’s belief disciplinary matters and grievances should be handled by an arbitrator, not the city’s Board of Fire and Police Commissioners.

“That is not the current law,” Epperson indicated. “That’s something that the union wants. That’s something that has to be bargained at the table.”

DeLaRosa, who remained silent for most of the briefing, concluded: “Our message today is clear. We’re gonna bring a message to the citizens of Rockford publicly and often.”

With its newfound media savvy, the Police Department’s rank-and-file will most certainly be heard from again as each side maneuvers toward the least-painful compromise.

Many officers feel betrayed by the administration considering their support of Morrissey in the last election. However, according to Morrissey, more than 50 percent of Rockford police officers live outside the city limits; and accordingly, their clout with the administration and city council is diminished.

More talks between Epperson and union leaders were scheduled for Sept. 19.

from the Sept. 19 – 25, 2007, issue

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