Despite being public bodies serving a public good, most police departments operate as secret societies. The push for police accountability includes making their practices more transparent. I recently obtained all disciplinary actions taken against Champaign police officers. Contrary to what I expected, only a small percentage of the disciplinary actions were the result of citizen complaints. The most common reason was for damage to a squad car. Yet there were still several instances of misconduct that threatened both citizens and officers.
This investigation began with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for complaints against Champaign police officers. In a recent case of Gekas v. Williamson, an Illinois appeals court ruled that complaints against officers are public record. Yet my request to the Champaign Police Department was denied. However, when I spoke with city attorney, Tricia Crowley, I was told that in such cases where an officer has been disciplined, whether for a complaint or for any other reason, the records are publicly available. For example, when Officer Daniel Norbits was suspended for 30 days after the death of Kiwane Carrington, the disciplinary letter from City Manager Steve Carter was released to the public and the press. I then decided to file a FOIA request for all disciplinary actions taken against Champaign police officers since 2004. I received letters for 48 cases where an officer had been disciplined. They indicate some curious patterns.
Of the 48 disciplinary actions, only three were the result of complaints filed by citizens. One case in 2007 involved Officer Kristina Benton who, when she responded to a domestic call, was “rude and discourteous” toward the individual who originally called the police. The unnamed person then filed a complaint. Officer Benton only received a letter of reprimand. A 2008 incident involved Officer Chris Young who was also, “discourteous” and failed to perform his duties in a “productive, effective, and efficient manner.”
The letter does not specify any further, but the citizen filed a complaint, and for his offence Young received a one-day suspension. In the third case, also from 2008, Officer Jamie Bowersock approached a car with a loud stereo. Despite departmental rules prohibiting abusive language, “concerning race, sex,” he told the driver of the car, a man named Marcell, to “stop whining like a girl.” After Marcell lodged a complaint, and the incident was investigated, Bowersock was given a letter of reprimand. Lieutenant Michael Paulus expressed his disappointment in the officer for allowing Marcell to “bait you” and for failing to uphold the department policy of “progressive enforcement.”
Disciplinary letters were also handed out to officers for things like failing to show up in court, being absent during training, or using profanity. As mentioned earlier, the most common reason for disciplining an officer was for damage to a squad car, or, as stated in departmental policy, failing to operate vehicles in a “careful, prudent manner.” Out of 48 disciplinary letters, 23 were for failing to properly operate a vehicle. Other disciplinary actions were for more egregious violations.
In 2009, Officer Eric Bloom was twice told to return an individual’s wallet. Failing to do so resulted in the owner’s mother becoming “extremely upset.” A letter of reprimand was given to Bloom. In a case from 2007, Officer Douglas Kimmie ran a criminal background check on a citizen “for reasons which were not entirely duty related.” Kimmie was only issued a letter of reprimand. Out of the total disciplinary actions, only four led to suspensions of one or more days. Three have been mentioned already: Young (one day), Bloom (two days), and Norbits (30 days). In 2007, Officer Elizabeth Mennenga was suspended for 12 days because she displayed “contact of an insulting or provoking nature.”
FIVE CASES IN MORE DETAIL
In most cases, there were no arrests and therefore no police reports describing the incident. There were five cases in which I was able to obtain further documentation. In one case from 2006, Officer Alison Ferguson was given a letter of reprimand for making an “inappropriate comment” to an African American woman she placed under arrest. Officer Daniel Ward received a letter of reprimand for car chase in 2009 because he failed to follow departmental policy in police pursuits. Ward unnecessarily engaged in a high speed pursuit without sounding his siren and not notifying others of the 90 mile per hour speeds. When Champaign police responded to a call about a suicidal man in September 2009, Officer Andre Davis was given a reprimand for accidentally firing his gun. This was just a month before Kiwane Carrington was, according to police account, killed when Norbits’ gun accidentally discharged.
Two other incidents, when juxtaposed, reveal the racist practices of the Champaign Police Department. In 2009, two black men named William and Calvin were walking at the intersection of Hedge Road and Hedge Court in Garden Hills when they were stopped by officers Jeremiah Christian and Rob Morris who were riding in their squad car. According to police reports, the two men were “improperly walking in the roadway” in violation of the vehicle code regulations. Yet there are no sidewalks on either side of the two streets. William had two small bags of weed and was put in the back of the squad car. Calvin took off running and Officer Morris chased him down in his car and put him in handcuffs.
As it turned out, Calvin was avoiding giving police his name because he had an outstanding warrant and he was charged with obstructing justice. The warrant was for driving on a suspended license. Calvin was arrested and taken to jail while William was let go and given a city ticket for possession of a narcotic. After the incident was reviewed, Officer Morris was given a letter of reprimand because he left William unsupervised in the back of the squad car while he went on a foot chase with Calvin. In contrast is a case from 2008 in which a 20-year-old white student named Michael was carrying an open can of beer when Officer Brian Ahsell drove by in his squad car.
As the officer pulled up, Michael dropped the can. Michael confessed he was underage, but told the officer he was not “causing trouble.” Officer Ahsell wrote him a ticket for underage drinking, explaining that he would not ticket him for the open container as long as he was cooperative. Michael became increasingly indignant. As Ahsell gave him the ticket and got into his car to leave, Michael stood in the middle of the street screaming at him for his name and number. Ahsell finally decided to arrest Michael and took him to the county jail.
While Michael was being booked, Ahsell changed his mind and decided to release him. In his report Ahsell wrote, “It should be noted that I based this decision on Michael being a U of I student with no known prior police contacts.” Ahsell returned Michael to campus and let him go. After review, Ahsell was given a letter of reprimand for failing to give his name and badge number, which, according to department policy, officers must willingly provide if asked. In the end, none of the 48 disciplinary actions addressed the racially disparate policing practices rampant in the Champaign Police Department, only infractions to police-defined guidelines.