NEWS

Four who left Rockford police force say chief to blame

Isaac Guerrero

Read the letter that criticizes Rockford's chief

Four of the city’s former ranking police officials blasted Chief Chet Epperson’s management Tuesday in a letter to the mayor, City Council, and Fire and Police Commission, calling for new leadership to move the department forward.

It’s the latest salvo in the ongoing rift between Epperson and his rank-and-file officers.

The letter was written by former interim Police Chief Dominic Iasparro and former Lts. Steve Pirages, Tim Ferguson and Ted Getty. Each of the four men left the department after Epperson became chief and have taken on roles with the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department.

Leaders of the Rockford police union have criticized the way Epperson deploys and disciplines officers and communicates with his employees. The discord has triggered lawsuits, protest marches, the union’s overwhelming vote of no confidence in Epperson’s management and calls for his resignation.

Aldermen will attempt to broker a peace deal today in a private meeting with city officials and union leaders.

“The controversy stems from one person and that’s the chief,” said Iasparro, standing beside Pirages, Getty and Ferguson during a news conference at the Criminal Justice Center.

The four men said they left the department because Epperson’s management values don’t match their own. They chose to air their concerns after Epperson gave a television interview last week during which — they believe — he labeled the four of them as “double dippers,” a reference to the county salaries and city pensions they draw.

Epperson did not return phone calls to the Register Star Tuesday.

The chief “comes across as strong-willed and arrogant” and is “unwilling to listen” to those in the department who have greater expertise on issues like narcotics enforcement, Iasparro said.

Cooperation among law enforcement agencies is crucial, but the city no longer participates in the Metro Narcotics team, and SWAT/hostage training between the city and county has ceased on Epperson’s watch, he said.

Epperson has asserted that the department’s absenteeism and overtime expenses are down because of new policing strategies that deploy manpower to the city’s criminal hot spots, but “there’s a great deal of smoke and mirrors” going on, Pirages said.

“You don’t get anything for free,” Pirages said. “Policing a city should be uniform. Shifts are short-handed.”

Collectively, Iasparro, Pirages, Ferguson and Getty have more than 100 years of combined law enforcement experience. Iasparro was interim chief for five months before Epperson was tapped to lead the department in April 2006. Though he applied for the chief’s job on more than one occasion during his 34-year tenure with the department, Iasparro said that wasn’t what prompted the letter.

“I’m not here looking to be chief of police,” he said.

Iasparro, Pirages, Ferguson and Getty are well-known and well-respected law enforcement officials in the Rockford area, said Dan Gilbert, a Rockford-based law professor who has provided police departments across the country with law and policy training.

“As long as the mayor and council feel they want to keep Epperson as their police chief, he’ll stay,” Gilbert said. “From a legal standpoint, he has no reason to go. He’s not been charged with anything that would require him to be fired or to resign.”

But this latest criticism is further evidence that new leadership is needed in the department, Gilbert said.

But Mayor Larry Morrissey’s support for Epperson is not wavering and Epperson doesn’t intend to resign, said City Administrator Jim Ryan. Aldermen will attempt to defuse the controversy, but they can’t fire the chief. Only the Fire and Police Commission can terminate the chief and only for wrongdoing.

“Sitting down face to face and communicating is a much better forum to address these concerns, and that’s how we’re going to handle it,” Ryan said.

Ald. Jeff Holt, D-11, sees only two ways out of the mess: Either Epperson changes his management style or the city finds a new top cop.

“For Chief Epperson to disparage the service of these men by indicating they are double dippers is wrong,” he said. “I’m glad that Dominic Iasparro and the others are still serving in a law enforcement capacity for the county and didn’t decide to just retire. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge about policing.”

Politics may remove Epperson from the picture if the controversy doesn’t end soon, Holt said.

“If this issue is still unraveling during the 2009 elections, it could have significant impact on who the next mayor is and, in turn, who the next police chief will be,” Holt said. “That’s unfortunate because it’s not good for the community to have this go unresolved for so long.”

Staff writer Isaac Guerrero can be reached at 815-987-1371 or iguerrero@rrstar.com.