Thin blue line between union, chief getting red hot

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11896228586458.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jon McGinty’, ‘Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson said he was humbled by the showing of support he received at the city council meeting.‘);

Ongoing tension between Rockford’s police union and the department’s top brass has come to a head.

The Police Benevolent and Protective Association Unit 6 Board of Directors annulled the memberships of Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson and Deputy Chief Michael Booker Sept. 7. Although union representatives won’t state specific transgressions involving the top cops, a union bylaw stipulates the board may revoke membership when “it is shown that the member is guilty of disloyalty or where his or her actions have been detrimental to the welfare of this Unit or to the rank and file of this Unit.”

The union’s 280-person membership is also planning to take a vote of no confidence Sept. 14, but Epperson says that will not affect the way his department is run. The chief noted his counterparts in New York, Miami, Nashville, Tenn., and Lowell, Mass., all received votes of no confidence in the midst of administrative changes.

“That’s not gonna sidetrack what we’re gonna do,” Epperson pledged, citing measurable results in reducing crime, increasing the solve rate and restoring quality of life. “Whatever the outcome Friday, Saturday morning I’ll be just as energized as I am today, and we’re gonna move ahead.”

Admittedly, among the changes Epperson has made are an increased number of disciplinary cases. Regardless, the chief says his door is open to union representatives.

“Anything is negotiable,” the chief said, “but integrity is not compromised.”

The ousting of Epperson and Booker from the union comes on the heels of two recent lawsuits.

Sept. 8, Judge Ed Prochaska denied a motion by City Attorney Joe Bruscato to dismiss a suit against Epperson, the city and the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners. The lawsuit, filed in May by union president Aurelio DeLaRosa, alleges commanding officers are not following proper procedures during internal disciplinary investigations. DeLaRosa was himself the subject of an investigation last October.

When Bruscato (D) formally announced his candidacy for Winnebago County State’s Attorney Aug. 28, DeLaRosa stood among his supporters.

The union wants a third-party arbitrator to handle disciplinary matters, instead of the three-person Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor. Prochaska denied the request, allowing the commission to continue hearing disciplinary cases.

The union is quick to point out the city has agreed to arbitration before, so why not now? Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes explained: “Almost universally and without exception in the past, whenever an officer has lost time, been suspended, we’ve gone to the Fire and Police Commission on those issues.”

Citing a recent “single act of grace” in which the city went along with the union’s request for an arbitrator, Hayes thinks the Rockford Police Benevolent and Protective Association is now trying to use the one-time concession against the city.

Two Rockford Police officers, Jason Bailey and Kevin Nordberg, are alleged to have used department computers, on department time, to post detrimental messages on the local daily’s online home. Several of the messages contained sharp criticisms of Epperson and Mayor Larry Morrissey (I).

Epperson filed 11 counts against Nordberg, alleging seven violations of departmental policy. Bailey is charged with 23 counts and also alleged to have violated seven policies, according to the complaint.

An April 4 posting, alleged to have been written by Bailey, stated: “Rockford is not a safe community and never will be under the Morrissey Administration. …This city has some major demographic issues that correlate directly with the crime problem. None of these issues have been addressed by the Morrissey/Epperson puppet show.”

New charges against Bailey, filed Sept. 10, allege the officer also viewed pornographic Web sites from his departmental computer while on duty.

The union may have good reason for wanting an arbitrator. LoRayne Logan, a member of the Fire and Police Commission, is a contributor to the Morrissey campaign.

In 2005, Logan provided the mayor’s campaign with a loan of $9,130, plus in-kind and individual contributions totaling $832.45. According to D-2 campaign disclosure reports, Logan’s company, the Work Place, added another $7,320 to Morrissey’s coffer.

Asked whether he thought the union had a valid concern in asking for an arbitrator, Morrissey responded: “The Fire and Police Commission has been around for a long time. There’s an action still pending in court regarding the role of arbitration versus Fire and Police Commission. I’ll just let that matter play out in court.”

Hayes indicated political contributions were not among the union’s reasons for wanting to steer away from the commission.

Attorney Tim O’Neil, a Geneva attorney representing the union, did not respond by the time of publication.

In a separate lawsuit, Bailey and fellow officer Matt Williams argue Epperson unlawfully confiscated their personal firearms when the two officers were placed on administrative leave.

Hayes explained Bailey and Williams were asked to surrender their guns because they’d elected to use them as their service weapons—a relatively new option for officers, according to the legal director.

“The pattern and practice that the city’s engaged in with regard to firearms has been on a case-by-case basis, and so it’s inconsistent,” said Hayes, noting the chief felt circumstances warranted the confiscation of the officers’ duty weapons.

“We feel we have a good story to tell the Court; why we conducted ourselves in the way we did, and we’ve got precedent in the past,” Hayes said of the pending litigation. “This was just the first time when we’ve disagreed with the union on these particular facts.”

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

Rockford police officers have been without a labor contract for nearly two years and are awaiting an arbitrator’s ruling on a wage and benefits package.

Morrissey recognized the frustration the union must be feeling.

“Frankly, we’re frustrated,” he disclosed. “We want a contract done, just like they do.”from the Sept. 12 – 18, 2007, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!