Lt. Steve Johnsen’s job with the Forest Park Police Department may be in jeopardy after an outside investigator concluded that he committed several violations when arresting Doc Ryan’s owner James Shaw following an altercation with Commissioner Patrick Doolin at a village council meeting last July.
Attorney Jeanine Stevens, who represented Lt. Johnsen during the investigation, said she was informed last Thursday that Lt. Johnsen was being offered a 30-day suspension, and if he chose not to accept, the village would seek his termination.
Police Chief James Ryan said that while termination is an option, Lt. Johnsen’s punishment will be left up to the village’s Board of Fire and Police Commissioners if a settlement cannot be reached without going to a hearing. The village has retained attorney Tom Melody of the law firm Klein, Thorpe and Jenkins to handle the case.
Stevens is also representing Sgt. Dan Harder in his ongoing termination hearing, while Patrick Lucansky, an attorney from the same firm as Melody, is representing the village.
The charges against Lt. Johnsen stem from a July 25 council meeting Shaw attended seeking a zoning variance. His request was tabled until a later meeting when both Doolin and Commissioner Terry Steinbach failed to second a motion to approve by Commissioner Mark Hosty.
According to the report filed by investigator Robert Johnson, a retired Illinois State Police Lt. Colonel, Shaw acknowledged that he approached the dais and swore at Doolin after the meeting, but denied Doolin’s charge that he leaned up against the dais and baited him to “come on,” as if challenging him to fight.
Shaw was arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct following the incident, during which Lt. Johnsen was the watch commander on duty at the police station.
Stevens accused Mayor Anthony Calderone of orchestrating the findings against Lt. Johnsen, an accusation that Calderone has also faced, and categorically denied, throughout the Harder hearing.
“Johnson was hired for the purpose of getting rid of (Lt.) Johnsen, so he did his job. He came out with a report that was favorable to the mayor,” said Stevens.
Johnson said that he had never met Calderone or Ryan before being hired in October. “When I met with the mayor the first time he told me ‘I’m not sure what the real deal is here, you get to the bottom of what happened.'”
Ryan has said that he asked village officials to hire an outside investigator for the case to prevent creating the appearance that he was targeting Lt. Johnsen, a 24 year veteran of the department. Lt. Johnsen has also served on the District 91 school board for many years and is Doolin’s former business partner in a real estate business.
After Doolin filed a complaint against Shaw, Lt. Johnsen instructed Off. Michael Harrison to handle the incident, though the investigative report notes that Off. Jason Keeling was actually assigned to the beat that includes village hall.
According to the report, Lt. Johnsen then called Calderone, who told him that he had not seen the altercation. He gave the phone to Harrison to document Calderone’s account, or lack thereof. He then spoke with Village Attorney Michael Durkin, but allegedly did not hand the phone to Harrison following that conversation.
Durkin was quoted in the police report documenting the incident as corroborating Doolin’s version of events, but Johnson said that four witnesses, including Durkin, supported Shaw’s account when questioned during his investigation.
“There’s no real discrepancy at all between the four independent witnesses and Shaw,” noted Johnson.
Durkin, in conversations with both Johnson and Assistant States Attorney Colin Simpson, said that he told Lt. Johnsen that swearing was not a crime, and that Shaw had committed neither assault nor disorderly conduct.
When interviewed for the investigation, Lt. Johnsen denied that Durkin told him that no crime had taken place.
Stevens questioned Johnson’s reasons for believing Durkin over Lt. Johnsen, and questioned his statement in his report that Durkin had nothing to lose by not telling the truth noting that Durkin is a contributor to Calderone who has received much business from the village.
“Time passes and Durkin’s got a different story once he talks to mayor,” she said.
Lt. Johnsen also called Ryan to inform him of the situation before making the arrest. Ryan said he disagreed with the arrest, noting that he felt “politicians need to have a thicker skin,” but let Lt. Johnsen use his discretion.
Ryan said he was concerned about a conflict of interest created by Lt. Johnsen handling an arrest for his close friend Doolin, but chose not to interfere. “I think it should have been up to (Lt.) Johnsen to set aside their friendship,” he said.
Ryan said that Lt. Johnsen only notified him of Doolin’s version of events, neglecting to mention that he had spoken to Durkin. Withholding information concerning his conversation with Durkin from both Ryan and Harrison is now among the violations cited by Johnson.
The report states that in the days following the Shaw arrest, Village Administrator Michael Sturino, an attorney, told Doolin about a state statute that deems threatening public officials a felony, and advised Doolin of the procedure for adding this to the charges against Shaw, which had both been misdemeanors.
When interviewed by Johnson, Sturino denied Lt. Johnsen’s claims that he had said that the arrest had been mishandled and that Shaw had been undercharged. Doolin also allegedly denied telling Lt. Johnsen that Sturino had said this.
Harrison told Johnson that he was ordered by Lt. Johnsen to contact the State’s Attorney in order to have the charges upgraded.
The charges against Shaw were dropped in October, and Shaw almost immediately filed a complaint against Lt. Johnsen alleging that he had been falsely arrested, which Johnson’s report said could not be proven. Johnson’s report also stated that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the arrest was the result of Lt. Johnsen’s friendship with Doolin.
Still, Johnson states in his report that both charges against Shaw were not justified, though the disorderly conduct charge was closer to meeting the criteria than the assault charge. “If all he was charged with was disorderly conduct it would maybe be unfair second guessing,” he acknowledged.
He noted that Assistant State’s Attorney Colin Simpson also told him that he felt the charges were unjustified.
Johnson also accuses Lt. Johnsen of failing to conduct an appropriate investigation before arresting Shaw, noting that several witnesses were not interviewed and no efforts were made to get a recording of the meeting.
“Just because it’s a misdemeanor doesn’t mean you don’t have a duty to conduct a thorough investigation,” said Johnson. “It wasn’t some sort of violent crime where you’ve got to take the guy off the streets (immediately).”
Johnson did note two significant flaws in Shaw’s version of events. First, Shaw apparently admitted that his statement in a letter to the editor of the Forest Park Review that he was handcuffed during his arrest was untrue.
Second, when asked if there were witnesses to support a claim that Doolin had given him the finger during the altercation, Shaw allegedly told police that if they needed witnesses, he would find witnesses.
Still, noting the importance of a police officer’s trustworthiness, Johnson recommends in his report that Lt. Johnsen “be given a very lengthy suspension and/or demotion in rank or terminated.”
Stevens, of course, has a different take: “It’s just politics, and its sleazy politics. I’ll grease you, you grease me, and everyone goes home happy except the taxpayers.”