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The long road to Rockford's civilian oversight board

Outside Rockford city hall
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Outside Rockford city hall

Earlier this year, the Rockford City Council voted in favor of establishing a citizen-led review board of the city’s police department. It will evaluate citizen complaints and internal investigation of police use of force. The board is now accepting applications, but some of the finer details still remain unclear.

Rockford joins a number of Illinois cities to employ a Civilian Oversight Board of local law enforcement. Aurora established one in 2020 and DeKalb passed its own late last year.

Still, for some of the oversight board's detractors, like Rockford Alderman Kevin Frost, the board is solving a problem that simply doesn’t exist.“My biggest question is, how is it going to work?" said Frost."Because I just think that it duplicates what the police do, duplicates what internal review does, it duplicates compliance procedures.”

In Rockford, the board of fire and police commissioners administers the hiring, firing, discipline, and promotion of officers. Similarly, the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union also mediates discipline and discharge if necessary. And, in instances where an officer shoots or kills someone, or a death otherwise occurs during a confrontation with a member of the public, the Winnebago Boone Integrity Task Force steps in to determine whether or not an officer should be criminally charged.

Nicholas Meyer is the city of Rockford’s legal director. He says that the new civilian oversight board is designed to make the process of police accountability more transparent.“And so this board is going to bring that to the public to review to make sure that those internal investigations are, are being thorough, they are being fair," said Meyer. "And the outcomes are correct, based on the law, based on police practices, and based on our own policies.”

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara say that the new oversight board was the product of dozens of town hall-style listening sessions following the murder of George Floyd and a series of protests in Rockford. At its core, the new oversight board is empowered to review completed internal investigations by police of all citizen complaints and instances of use of force above a certain magnitude.

McNamara explains that while the effort to implement a review board took off nearly 18 months ago, the idea has been circulating in the community for over a decade now.“My understanding after the Barmore shooting or right around there, several Aldermen and a couple of community organizations." said McNamara. "Certainly the NAACP pushed for some form of oversight board.”

The Barmore shooting was a high profile police shooting in Rockford that attracted national attention, and even a visit from the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In 2009, a pair of Rockford police officers chased Mark Anthony Barmore into the basement of the Kingdom Authority Church. Barmore barricaded himself in a boiler room connected to a children’s daycare. Without evacuating the church or the daycare, the officers pushed their way into the boiler room. Both shot Barmore during the confrontation in the closet-sized room, ultimately killing him.

Christy Lopez is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. A little over a decade ago the city of Rockford commissioned an independent assessment that Lopez co-authored about the shooting and death of Mark Anthony Barmore by the two Rockford police officers.

“There's nothing in the evidence that indicated any reason why there wasn't time to get all the children out [of] there, all teachers out [of] there and just hang out and sit there for as long as it took to get in and negotiate or get friends or family members," said Lopez. "So many things could have been that they had all the time in the world. And instead, they rushed in there and forced the situation – forced the confrontation.”

The review Lopez co-authored found that at the time there was no mechanism within the Rockford police department for investigating the “administrative” components of an officer-involved shooting. Lopez explains that while an officer can be cleared of any criminal liability in an officer-involved shooting, that doesn’t necessarily mean that an officer’s actions were automatically consistent with the department's policing standards.

“Even if the officer's actions were considered reasonable under the law, and therefore didn't violate the law, they can still be wrong, avoidable, unnecessary, harmful,” said Lopez.

Up until the Barmore shooting, the internal investigations of officer-involved-shootings didn’t include that administrative review, only the criminal investigation. Nicholas Meyer, the city’s legal director, explains that this is exactly the gap that the new Civilian Oversight Board is going to fill by bringing the public’s perspective to those administrative reviews.

“This board would not be reviewing for purposes of determining whether there's some sort of criminal contact, it would be the second one – which is, is, was the officers conduct compliant with the city policy," said Meyer."But more importantly, whether the person reviewing the incident reviewed accurately and also came to the correct determination as well.”

Despite the fact that to this day nothing in the Rockford Police Department’s policies specifically requires an administrative investigation of officer-involved shootings, Rockford Police Chief Carla Redd maintains that to the best of her knowledge, they do happen – it just may take a while.

“It varies depending on what type of case you're dealing with, where they are in the criminal proceedings of the case. So there are various things that intertwine there that determine when that final administrative review is completed," said Redd. "I can’t throw out a random number and tell you, ‘Yeah, it'll be done in six months.’”

So as it stands, there’s no telling how much time will lapse between an officer-involved shooting, the administrative investigation of that shooting, and when the new civilian oversight actually reviews that report. For example, the high-profile shooting of Tyris Jones by a police officer occurred in October 2020, still the Rockford Police Department was not able to disclose to WNIJ the status of that internal investigation prior to the deadline of this story. The Winnebago Boone Integrity Task Force did complete an investigation and submitted its findings to the State’s Attorney who determined the use of force was legally justified.

Christy Lopez, the co-author of the report on the Barmore case, says any significant lapse of time between when an officer shoots someone and the corresponding administrative investigation poses serious concerns.

“Even if there was no substantive change in the evidence, because of the delay, it signals to communities that you aren't taking this seriously enough," said Lopez. "In my view, it signals, particularly, that you aren't taking seriously enough if you're acting with the utmost level of urgency and care.”

And so it remains unclear exactly how long it may take before the new Civilian Oversight Board is actually able to review an administrative investigation of an officer-involved shooting. Still, some Rockford residents like the President of the local chapter of the NAACP, Rhonda Robinson-Greer, say that after waiting so long, at least there is a board to speak of.

“This was brought to our community. And at that point, when I first started talking about it, I say it was brought to our community 10 years ago, it took 11 years for it to pass,“ said Robinson-Greer.

The civilian board will consist of seven members appointed by the Mayor with the consent of the City Council. And, prior to taking office, anyone appointed to the board will be required to complete a mandatory training curriculum. The city is taking applications for the board through April 15th.

Additional reporting by Sam Stecklow, Invisible Institute
This report is a part of an investigative partnership between WNIJ and the Invisible Institute.

Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.