NEWS

Rockford police battle might get outside help

Isaac Guerrero

Read the complaint against Epperson

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Phil Nicolosi said he’ll recommend that the Illinois State Police or another independent police agency investigate allegations that Police Chief Chet Epperson committed perjury and other felony offenses.

The allegations, submitted Wednesday by police Sgt. Robert Redmond to Nicolosi’s office, are the latest salvo in the months of acrimony between Epperson and his rank-and-file officers. The discord reached fever pitch last month, when union leaders called on Epperson to resign.

Now the union wants the city’s Fire and Police Commission to fire the chief.

“It’s quite clear what our position is,” Bruce Brannum, the union’s vice president, said Thursday. “He needs to be removed. There’s no turning back.”

Brannum filed a separate, six-count complaint against Epperson with the commission Wednesday, along with a written copy of Redmond’s allegations. The disciplinary complaint accuses Epperson of mistreating officers, making a racist remark and other violations of department policy.

Epperson did not return calls Thursday to the Register Star, and city spokeswoman Julia Valdez said city officials would not comment on the allegations.

Felony accusations

Nicolosi said his office lacks the personnel to investigate Redmond’s allegations and the Sheriff’s Department can’t be impartial. This week, ranking Sheriff’s Department employees Dominic Iasparro, Ted Getty, Steve Pirages and Tim Ferguson criticized Epperson’s management of the Police Department.

“The community has been through enough with this, and I’m not going to perpetuate it,” Nicolosi said. “I’m calling for an independent investigation. I cannot make any judgment as to the merit of the allegations, but they are serious.”

Nicolosi said he’ll decide in coming days whether the state police or some other law enforcement agency is best to handle the matter.

Redmond says Epperson:

Lied under oath during a disciplinary hearing last week for officer Jason Bailey. Bailey is accused of using his work computer to view pornography and posting disparaging messages remarks about Epperson on the Register Star’s Web site.

Violated a state law on eavesdropping in connection with separate incidents this year involving two armed men who barricaded themselves in houses before surrendering to police after hours of negotiations.

The complaint doesn’t elaborate on the claims.

Redmond could not be reached for comment Thursday. Brannum declined to elaborate on the felony accusations, but he said union leaders “felt compelled” to give the commission a three-page copy of Redmond’s allegations before the panel ruled on Bailey’s case.

Brendan Maher, the commission’s secretary and legal counsel, wrote Redmond a letter Thursday asking him to clarify whether he’d like the commission to hold a formal hearing on his complaint. The commission, Maher said in the letter, isn’t equipped to determine violations of criminal laws and would defer further action until an appropriate law enforcement agency investigated the claims.

Commission meets Saturday

The commission may discuss Bailey’s disciplinary case behind closed doors or deliver a ruling on the matter when it meets Saturday. The panel also may discuss Brannum’s complaint in closed session. Epperson would only face a disciplinary hearing if the commission determines that Brannum’s complaint has merit.

Among other allegations, Brannum’s complaint says Epperson told nine police officers during a Sept. 18 meeting that if they persuaded Bailey to resign, he’d offer amnesty to other officers who were facing discipline, then said: “If you are not a Mexican, you may not know what amnesty means.”

Epperson’s “‘do what I say,’ and ‘it’s my way or the highway’ attitude has caused morale within the department to plummet,” which contradicts a department policy that requires supervisors to “set a good example for all subordinate officers, providing leadership and guidance in developing loyalty and dedication from the department,” Brannum’s complaint says.

“I can see where some of it does seem like it’s petty and piling on, but he’s the leader of the group,” Brannum said. “All we’re doing is making allegations, and we feel the allegations have merit.”

State law gives the commission three options when considering discipline for a police or fire employee: Decide that the complaint lacks merit and dismiss it; suspend the employee for 30 days without pay; or terminate the worker.

But any time the commission rules to fire a police or fire chief, the City Council gets the final say, Maher said.

‘Everything up in the air’

Ald. Victory Bell, D-5, is still hopeful that the union and Epperson can find common ground.

“If there’s any opportunity for us to move forward and make some progress, I want that to succeed,” he said. But for now, the best tack is to keep mum about the controversy.

“It’s to the point where any comments that are made can be construed as divisive and would prohibit us from coming together. I would hate to be the person to say something that would be misconstrued and add to the problem.”

Aldermen can’t directly fire the chief without a recommendation from the commission, but they could, as a symbolic gesture, adopt a resolution expressing support or calling for the chief’s resignation.

Neither of those scenarios is likely, Ald. Bill Timm, R-9, said.

“I don’t think you could get 14 aldermen to agree to that at this particular time,” he said. “I don’t know what the council will do. Everything right now is up in the air.”

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