By Jim Hagerty
The ongoing dispute between Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson and the local police entered its latest round this week.
Monday, June 23, the Rockford Police Benevolent & Protective Association (PBPA), led by President Terry Peterson, alleged Epperson tampered with the investigation of allegations that the chief obstructed a domestic violence welfare check at the home of NAACP President Lloyd Johnston last fall.
The union filed a complaint against Epperson regarding that incident earlier this month. Monday, June 16, the Fire and Police Commission issued subpoenas to various members of the Rockford Police Department and City Hall, demanding production of documents related to the incident. The union alleges the chief, through his attorney, Thomas McGuire, has attempted to thwart that process.
In a June 23 statement, Peterson said: “Chief Epperson, through his counsel, sent an e-mail to each individual that was issued a subpoena requesting that they not comply with the commission’s subpoenas. The chief’s flagrant interference with the subpoena process is a clear abuse of power which must not be permitted. Three of these individuals are members of the department under his command. He has put undue pressure on these members to violate a subpoena.”
McGuire argued June 16 that the union was required to file a grievance with Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) before a formal complaint with the board of commissioners could be heard. Further, McGuire said, the formal complaint is required to come from the mayor, not the union.
A complaint from Morrissey won’t come anytime soon, as the mayor continues to support Epperson and his actions of Oct. 30, 2013, when Epperson allegedly told Johnston to disobey officers and send them off his property.
Officers were at the residence after receiving a call that Johnston’s adult son was involved in a domestic dispute. During the incident, Johnston allegedly made a mobile phone call to Epperson and said he didn’t know why officers were at his residence and that he did not want them there.
According to an incident report by Officer D’Evyron Boone, “the chief replied, ‘Don’t let them into the house and tell them to leave.’”
Johnston also allegedly told Epperson officers threatened to kick in his door. According to Boone’s report, the statement was not a threat. Boone said he was explaining to Johnston that officers needed to do their duty as caretakers, even if they “had to kick in the door.”
The Fourth Amendment allows police to enter a home without a warrant if they are acting as community caretakers.
Epperson told Johnston, who officers say became defiant, a supervisor would be sent to the scene. That supervisor was Sgt. Eddie Torrance. When Torrance arrived, he explained to Johnston that the case would be closed once they verified his son was safe. The incident ended when the son, Lloyd Quincy Johnston III, exited the home.
Johnston claims he did not learn until later that his ex-wife, Tonya Eboigde, called Rockford Police and requested officers conduct a welfare check on their son. Eboigde, who lives in New York, told a 911 dispatcher she heard what sounded like a struggle while she spoke to her son on the phone earlier that night. After the call suddenly went dead, Eboigde was unable to reach her son.
Johnston said his son argued with his mother over the phone, but a domestic disturbance did not occur.
“Nobody debates the fact that Chief Epperson immediately requested a supervisor on scene,” Morrissey said in response to the union’s complaint. “There simply is no issue here. The supervisor handled concerns of both Mr. Johnston and the officers on the scene. The situation was handled. No criminal activity occurred. No arrests were made.”
While several officers claim they heard the speakerphone conversation between Epperson and Johnston, the union claims Epperson falsely stated in a report that he did not tell Johnston to order officers off the property. That allegation is part of what the union has called Epperson’s attempt to undermine his officers, put them in danger, and cover up his actions.
McGuire says the allegations are baseless.
“If they really felt the chief didn’t have the right to do what he did, they could file a lawsuit against the chief,” McGuire said. “They didn’t. So, the bottom line is, in my opinion, that the reason why they didn’t is because the chief of police was acting pursuant to the law.”
June 16, McGuire asked the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners to dismiss the union’s complaint. Instead, Secretary Ian Linnabary granted subpoenas seeking all reports related to the incident. That includes the one penned by Epperson. Those reports, the union alleges, the chief does not want the commission to see.
“The chief’s failure to comply with the subpoena issued by the commission demonstrates that he believes he is above the law,” Peterson said, “and reveals his intention to cover up his conduct relating to this matter.”
The police union is represented by Rockford attorney Dan McGrail.
From the June 25-July 1, 2014, issue