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In a Small Illinois City, A Black Man Died After Officers Shoved A Baton In His Mouth. Black Officers Say They’ve Suffered At The Hands Of The Department, Too.

Lawsuits from Joliet Police Department officers are among at least 12 current federal complaints against the agency. The men say their civil rights lawsuits are part of a decades-long history of discrimination.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Joilet Police Department Facebook page.

When Lionel Allen joined the Joliet Police Department in Illinois in 1989, he knew that it had a reputation for being hostile to Black officers. Around the same time, the department, which patrols a small city about an hour southwest of Chicago, was placed under a citywide affirmative action plan demanding the hiring of more Black officers.

But Allen didn’t expect that the battle to reform the department would take decades—or involve him personally. 

As he rose through the ranks, Allen watched the department endure multiple scandals, including officers accused of using racial slurs and allegedly harassing a Black female officer. In 2018, Allen sued the department in federal court for race discrimination. He retired the following year after three decades on the force.  In his federal complaint, Allen says the Joliet police tried to fire him for complaining about, among other things, white officers pepper spraying Black children and making fun of Black people while on duty. In November 2019, another Black officer, David Jackson, sued the department in federal court, claiming that he was retaliated against for defending Allen in  interviews with local media. 

“In Joliet, white guys can just about commit murder and nothing happens to them,” Allen told The Appeal this month. “But if a Black officer commits a small infraction, they blow it all the way out.”

Now, the department is facing at least 12 separate federal lawsuits, including numerous excessive-force complaints, at least one wrongful-death lawsuit, and four cases filed by current or former officers.  Both Allen’s and Jackson’s suits are ongoing, as is a suit filed by Cassandra Socha, an officer who alleges that fellow officers stole private, explicit photos from her personal cell phone and shared them around the department.

The department is also facing a wrongful-death lawsuit involving Eric Lurry, a 37-year-old Black man who died after Joliet police violently “searched” his body in the back of a squad car during a drug arrest in January. In the months after Lurry’s death, his widow, Nicole Lurry, told the media that the police refused to release any information about the incident. In June, Sgt. Javier Esqueda leaked video of Lurry’s death to a CBS affiliate in Chicago. The footage showed Joliet cops hitting Lurry while he was handcuffed, placing a baton in his mouth, and pinching his nose shut for one minute and 38 seconds. (Joliet Police later said that, because Lurry was possibly overdosing, they placed the baton in his mouth to prevent him from biting down while they searched his mouth for drugs.)

“Hey, wake up, bitch, let’s get it over,” one officer says in the clip while slapping Lurry. “Open your mouth, open your mouth, open your mouth.” In July, Will County State Attorney Jim Glasgow cleared the officers involved of wrongdoing in Lurry’s death and stated that Lurry died of an accidental overdose of heroin, Fentanyl, and cocaine.

After Esqueda, a Latinx officer who’d been on the force for 27 years, admitted to leaking the footage, the department opened an Internal Affairs investigation against him, stripped him of his badge and gun, and placed him on desk duty. In July, Joliet Police Chief Alan Roechner released a lengthy statement condemning what he said was a “false narrative” that the department failed to properly investigate the case or withheld video evidence from the public.

In August, Will County Coroner Patrick O’Neil—who ruled Lurry’s death an “accidental overdose”—announced that he was resigning from his job early “for personal reasons.” He’d held the elected position since 1992.

Even Mayor Bob O’Dekirk has been caught up in the department’s racism scandals. During Black Lives Matter protests this year, O’Dekirk, a former Joliet officer, was filmed grabbing a protester before a scuffle ensued. Days later, a 20-year-old video surfaced online of O’Dekirk physically assaulting two men of color while working for the Joliet police. After former City Council member and pastor Warren Dorris, a Black man, held a press conference at his local church and demanded ODekirk’s resignation, the mayor told the press that “Warren Dorris needs to get over it and move on.”

In a voicemail message left with The Appeal, O’Dekirk said that he was not allowed to comment on Allen or Jackson’s cases but supports efforts to diversify the Joliet Police. (In June, before the decades-old video of O’Dekirk’s assault surfaced online, the city’s Black Police Officer Association said it supported O’Dekirk fully.) But O’Dekirk also referred to the recent Black Lives Matter protest in which he was filmed grabbing protesters as “a riot” that needed to be shut down by police.

The Joliet Police Department did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal. But Allen says the department’s response to the Lurry case perfectly exemplifies the two-tiered disciplinary system that he says he worked under for decades.

“The white guy can almost commit murder,” Allen reiterated. “But the Black guy knows he’s going to get smashed the hardest.”

That American police departments are historically racist institutions—in the South, policing emerged from slave patrols—is most likely not a surprise to anyone who has been following the anti-police-brutality uprisings that have occurred over the last decade. But throughout the history of American policing, Black officers, too, have faced racist attacks from white colleagues. Stories of racism within police departments have helped to illuminate just how transparently many departments functioned as white-only gangs. In the early 1900s, Samuel Battle, the first Black officer to work for the then mostly-Irish New York Police Department, tried to join the force in an effort to improve relations between cops and Black New Yorkers. He was repeatedly denied entry based on dubious medical-screening “failures.” Sometime after finally becoming an officer in 1911, Battle was left an anonymous note with a tear the size of a bullet hole in it that stated, “N****r, if you don’t quit, this is what will happen to you.”

More than 100 years later, Black officers share similar stories. San Francisco Police Sgt. Yulanda Williams reportedly said she became a cop in 1990 in an effort to improve relations between the police and non-white communities. But in May 2019, Williams sued the San Francisco Police Department after she said she was retaliated against for testifying publicly about racism in the department. In 2015, text messages revealed during a federal court case showed San Francisco officers using a slew of racist, homophobic, and misogynist language, including one officer who referred to Williams as a “n****r bitch.” 

Black officers say the Joliet Police Department, too, has long been a club that the city’s white male residents have used to exert control over the city. Indeed, many of white officers in Joliet belong  to the Moran Athletic Club, a drinking and social club founded in 1931 that Allen says has not historically been a place where Black Joliet residents have been welcome.

The club’s longtime president, Richard Goepper, was a Joliet police officer for 27 years before becoming the city’s deputy liquor commissioner. Goepper, 72, unexpectedly collapsed and died at the club in August. (Representatives for the club did not immediately respond to messages from The Appeal.)

“Part of the problem with the department and the disparity in how discipline is handled is that most of the Black guys from the department are from Chicago, but we’re not even 10 percent of the force,” Allen told The Appeal. “But the white officers, most of them grew up in Joliet. Joliet has a small-town mentality, and they all know somebody who knows somebody, and they tend to do stuff Black officers don’t do, like hunting, fishing, golf, staying out drinking at the Moran Club. Black officers don’t do that.”

Over the years, Allen said he watched as other Black and Latinx officers ran up against the boys’ club that controls the police department. In 1994, then-Joliet Officer Cynthia Williams, a Black female officer was arrested by her own co-workers while off duty after she said she tried to stop her nephew from interfering with a white officer who had placed her brother in a chokehold. (She later sued the department for civil rights violations, but her case was dismissed.) The following year, a Black officer, Benjamin Billups, sued the city after he said he was passed up for a promotion that he’d been entitled to under the city’s affirmative action rules.  (A state appellate court ultimately ruled in Billups’ favor in 1999.) In 1997, a Mexican-American former officer named Renaldo Hernandez sued the department, alleging that he had heard a fellow officer, Tom Stein, use racial epithets directed toward Black people and refer to people as “spics.” After Hernandez discussed the incident with a Black officer in the local courthouse, another officer went to Stein to inform him of the conversation. Hernandez says Stein then attempted to file criminal charges against him. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Hernandez in November 1999

According to Allen’s lawsuit, in 2015, Joliet’s white officers were given the opportunity to bid on which sector of the city they wanted to work in. Allen also claimed that a white officer named Michael Cochran took over the sector he’d been working for the last nine years. He then complained to another officer that he thought the move was racist, especially since he’d seen Cochran use mace on “10-11 year old Black children and then [mock] them when they cried,” called a fellow Black officer “big, black, and handsome,” and joked that he would arrest Black men who had “stolen fried chicken.” Allen says Lt. Marc Reid then initiated an internal investigation against Allen for “conduct unbecoming of a department member,” “frivolous complaints,” and “false statements,” even though Allen says he never filed any formal written complaints against anyone.

Allen then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—and says former Chief Brian Benton said that he would be fired unless he withdrew the complaint.

“This was unprecedented in Joliet Police Department history,” Allen’s attorney, Aaron Rapier, told The Appeal. “After Lionel files his EEOC complaint, the department says to him, you have to accept a 30-day suspension without pay and withdraw your EEOC complaint, or you’ll be terminated.”

According to his lawsuit, Allen attempted to withdraw the complaint, but the EEOC refused and instead found that the department had retaliated against him. In 2018, Allen sued the department, Reid, and Benton. In a July 2018 court filing, a lawyer representing the city denied “any unlawful actions” by Benton, Reid, or the police department.

That same year, a fellow Black officer, David Jackson, became president of Joliet’s Black Police Officer Association (BPOA). Jackson began speaking out to other officers and the media on the BPOA’s behalf. Last year, Jackson, who alleges in his lawsuit that Reid also targeted him for being Black, told the city’s Times Weekly newspaper that he was concerned about Allen’s firing. Jackson says in response he was issued a one-day suspension for making public statements without proper authorization. In court filings, Jackson stated that current Chief Roechner “berated Jackson as if disciplining a child for questioning him on Allen” and vowed to get even with Jackson for fighting back against him. 

In March 2019, Jackson was charged with domestic battery after allegedly hitting his then-girlfriend repeatedly while in the neighboring city of Crest Hill. Jackson alleged in his lawsuit that Roechner sent Joliet officers to the Crest Hill Police department to oversee the case. He further claimed that Joliet officers conducted aspects of Crest Hill’s investigation—and that police said a surveillance video of the evening in question had been deleted before being entered into evidence. (In 2019, Patch reported that the same woman had filed for a protection order against Jackson in 2009.) The charges against Jackson in the 2019 case were later dismissed after the alleged victim withdrew her complaint.

Last year, Jackson asked the department to fund his trip to the National Black Police Association convention, but Jackson says Roechner said the city no longer had the funds. Jackson then sued Roechner and the city in November. In an amended complaint, Jackson said he was retaliated against for filing the lawsuit and that the department now says he is not an employee “in good standing.”

“The Joliet Police Department’s anti-black culture and history of retaliation dates back over twenty years,” Jackson’s suit alleges. “Minority Joliet police officers have long sought redress from state and federal courts, complaining of Joliet administrative level police officers’ resistance to affirmative action, use of ethnic slurs, abuses of  power, discriminatory  promotional practices, frivolous internal  affairs charges and other acts that have humiliated and embarrassed them and held them back in their careers.” (In February, the city argued the suit should be dismissed and that multiple officers involved are entitled to qualified immunity.)

Marc Reid, the supervisor that both Allen and Jackson accused of targeting them based on their race was promoted to deputy chief in 2018.