December 10, 2023
Local News

Chairman resigns from shrinking Joliet police board as controversies swirl

The chairman of the the city police board has resigned as police controversies, including unrest over the death of Eric Lurry, continue to intensify.

The five-member Board of Fire and Police Commissioners is down to three, which is just enough to make a quorum, and one other commissioner is contemplating leaving.

Board Chairman Herb Lande said he resigned this week for personal and business reasons but also pointed to comments made recently by a fellow commissioner about the police chief.

Lande said he was "livid" after reading the email in which Todd Wooten said the board does not trust Chief Al Roechner and accused him of trying to intimidate a whistleblower in the Lurry case.

"The letter that Todd Wooten wrote was speaking for himself and not for the board," Lande said Tuesday.

Wooten sent the email a week ago to fellow commissioners, city and police officials, and media on the mailing list for the board's meeting notices.

"I plan on making a motion that the Fire & Police Board does not have confidence in the Chief of Police, and do not believe or trust the information he provides us," Wooten wrote. "We as a board, do not believe or trust the information we get from the Chief of Police, and have not for the past year."

Lande said he called Wooten "immediately" after seeing the email. "I said, 'I can't agree with this.'"

Even so, Lande said his resignation is due to the attention he needs to give to his construction business at a busy time.

"I'm leaving because I'm busy, not because of Todd Wooten," he said. "What I want to say about Todd Wooten is, I don't agree with what he wrote."

Wooten on Tuesday stood by his comments about Roechner and said Lande previously had complained about Roechner misleading the board about candidates for positions in the police department.

"Minority candidates were more closely scrutinized and monitored, and there seemed to be a disparity," Wooten said. "White candidates who had glaring problems in their past were given a pass by Al Roechner."

The email also said that Roechner was "blatantly retaliating against a Whistleblower, thus tampering with a witness and potentially 'compromising' a case."

The comment referred to Roechner's assignment of Sgt. Javier Esqueda to desk duty after he obtained and released part of a police squad car video showing police probing Lurry's mouth with a baton, pinching his nose apparently to open his mouth, and at one point slapping him as he lost consciousness.

The Will Grundy Major Crimes Task Force has concluded that Lurry died Jan. 29 because of intoxication from a mixture of heroin, cocaine and fentanyl, and has exonerated the police from criminal wrongdoing.

But the Lurry family and others are questioning the police handling of the arrest and accusing the officers of causing his death. Mayor Bob O'Dekirk and some City Council members have called for an investigation by the Illinois Attorney General's Office.

Joliet police are doing an internal investigation into the matter.

Wooten said he believes Roechner is trying to intimidate Esqueda by assigning him to desk duty and sending the same message to other officers who might come forward.

He acknowledged disagreeing with Lande over the email.

"But," Wooten said, "I felt if we didn't say anything at that point in time we were just letting a witness be intimidated."

Wooten said he did not know if he would bring up a motion for no-confidence with the board, adding he did not believe there would be a meeting Thursday as scheduled because Commissioner Craig Purchase was resigning.

But Purchase said he was not resigning, although he acknowledged discussing the possibility with Wooten.

"I thought about it quit a bit," Purchase said. "I think the board has to operate still. I'm not going to walk away right now." He added, "I can't say how long I'm going to be there."

The board's third member, Brad Price, was appointed last month on the same day he appeared at a press conference to express support for Mayor Bob O'Dekirk, who is the subject of an investigation into his scuffle with two protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally on May 31.

State police are investigating O'Dekirk's conduct and that of police officers who jumped in after the mayor and the two protesters went to the ground.

O'Dekirk appoints commissioners to the police and fire board with the approval of the City Council.

The board approves police and fire department hiring and promotions. It also reviews disciplinary maters. The board meeting Thursday is scheduled for 5 p.m.

Bob Okon

Bob Okon

Bob Okon covers local government for The Herald-News