Answers sought over deadly Rockford traffic stop
By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — The city was silent while the body of fallen officer Jaimie Cox proceeded through Rockford last Saturday.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Shanna Hill, co-owner of Wired Cafe, said.
Hill was among hundreds who lined both sides of East State Street downtown as more than 600 squad cars from all over the Midwest escorted the patrolman’s casket through the city. Many held signs, flags and wore blue ribbons in Cox’s honor.
The same surrealism was evident along the entire processional route that started at First Free Rockford, proceeded downtown and looped back to Fitzgerald Funeral Home at 1860 S. Mulford Road.
Cox, 30, was killed Nov. 5 after he stopped a pickup truck driven by 49-year-old Eddie Patterson, who also died.
Autopsies showed Cox died as the result of blunt force trauma police say occurred when he became entangled in Patterson’s vehicle, which crashed blocks from the initial stop. Patterson died from gunshot wounds—rounds fired from Cox’s service weapon.
While Cox’s death has been listed as a homicide, the question whether the officer was justified in his use of force is being investigated by the Winnebago-Boone Integrity Task Force, formed after the 2009 officer-involved shooting death of Mark Anthony Barmore inside Kingdom Authority Church. But Patterson’s family and supporters say they will not be satisfied by the findings of a local investigation.
“We do not feel we will receive a fair investigation from the Integrity Task Force,” Kingdom Authority Pastor Melvin Brown, who is acting as the Patterson family spokesman. “The task force is made up of surrounding officers from this area who are friends and cousins. They all go out together, so we need someone from the outside.”
By the outside, Brown means beyond the Illinois border. A federal investigation, he said, is what will determine what truly happened during the exchange between Cox and Patterson.
“We need someone to come in here to give the family of Officer Cox a fair investigation, the Patterson family a fair investigation, and the community a fair investigation.”
While public speakers at Rockford’s committee meetings Monday suggested that what could have unfolded on Nov. 5 may have been racially motivated, neither Brown or Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara echoed such a sentiment. They agreed that both families deserve answers—some form of closure about why their loved one’s life was cut short.
While the mayor did not discount the need for a federal probe in the future, he said he trusts that efforts already in place will bring the situation to a close.
“We will let the [task force] do their job,” McNamara said, “[and] let that investigation run its course.”
Brown, flanked by supporters—both black and white—reiterated his opinion that until federal investigators take over the case, the people of Rockford will not be properly served by those elected to run the city.
“If we have to file paperwork to get a federal investigation we will,” the pastor said. “And we will invite other people here to help us.”
Among those who will be invited to Rockford are noted civil rights advocates Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who took part in protests over the Barmore shooting. In that incident, Rockford Officers Oda Poole and Stanton North on Aug. 24, 2009, pursued 23-year-old Barmore, a domestic violence suspect, on foot. Barmore fled to the basement of Kingdom Authority, at 518 N. Court St., where he was shot and killed near a daycare that operated in the building. Police claimed Barmore struggled for an officer’s gun when he was shot. Witnesses claimed he was shot as he was led out of a boiler room with this hands up.
Poole and North were found to have acted justifiably, catapulting then-Police Chief Chet Epperson and Mayor Larry Morrissey into a firestorm of controversy.
McNamara said since the Barmore shooting, which resulted in a $1.1 million settlement, efforts have been strong to restore and build community trust in Rockford’s nearly 300 rank-and-file officers and police brass.
“The No. 1 thing we do is community engagement,” he said. “We are getting into our neighborhoods. We have strong homes in those neighborhoods. Our geographic policing system is embedded in our neighborhoods.”
Part of the effort, McNamara said, is the city’s use of what leaders have dubbed “Rock Houses,” rent-free homes for officers to live in their districts.
“Building trust and building relationships is at the core of what this is all about,” the mayor added.
It is also about reinforcing law enforcement with the tools to operate properly in the modern age, McNamara said. And that means not only adding the number of Tasers to the department and updating police intelligence resources, but increasing the number of dash cams.
“We need 50 new police vehicles,” McNamara said. “All of those vehicles would come with dash cams.”
Currently, only around 20 Rockford squad cars are equipped with dashboard cameras. Cox’s was not one of them, which Brown says adds to questions he said can only be answered by an investigation by federal authorities.
“Why was there not a camera on this vehicle?” Brown said, “Did the officer have the right training as a rookie officer, by the Rockford Police Department, to be making a stop that late at night?”
Brown said Patterson’s family wants to know why, if the license plates were on Patterson’s truck were illegal, did Cox not call for backup before the stop.
While McNamara and Police Chief Dan O’Shea say information about the case will not be released until the investigation is complete, both have said Brown’s questions are among those the task force intends to answer.
As a police funeral was underway at First Free, about 150 mourners gathered at Kingdom Authority for Patterson’s service. They were there to honor the father and grandfather who worked at the BMO Harris Bank Center for more than a decade. His past, which included a stint in prison, had no bearing on what friends and family say was a purposeful life Patterson worked hard for the last 10 years to improve.
About 30 protesters marched with Brown from the church Monday to City Hall, where they addressed members of city council and law enforcement. Aside from a warning from O’Shea about disrupting a public meeting, demonstrators were civil, yet vocally called on Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato, O’Shea, McNamara and aldermen to support a federal investigation.
“This is essentially disorderly conduct,” O’Shea admonished the group, before agreeing to meet with Brown and supporters privately at the church, Tuesday.
After that meeting, O’Shea echoed the mayor.
“The task force is going to handle the investigation,” he said. “I am happy with that, and I don’t believe a federal investigation is needed at this point.”
O’Shea said his department would be responsible for calling in federal investigators. And while he said today’s decision is subject to change, he does not expect to revisit the issue until after the task force has completed its investigation.
McNamara said what Cox and Patterson’s supporters are calling for is in step with what he has heard over the last week from citizens from all areas of Rockford.
“I have had dozens of conversations with people who have stated concerns,” the mayor said. “And they want answers. Both families want and deserve answers. People want information and that’s understandable.” R.