Waterman police chief walks out of meeting as village officials stay silent on his suspension

Officials decline to say whether audit undertaken while chief was on unpaid suspension prompted job search

Waterman Police Chief Jason Swanson, standing in the back left of a crowded Waterman Village Trustee Board meeting on July 9, 2024, joined a cacophony of public comments from Waterman residents seeking to understand why he was suspended without pay earlier in the year.

WATERMAN – Waterman’s police chief walked out of a public meeting as residents watched Tuesday, after village officials declined to say whether an audit undertaken while he was suspended without pay in February recommended his permanent removal.

Police Chief Jason Swanson was followed by more than a half-dozen residents, who stood with him in the rain as the Village Board proceeded with its monthly meeting. Waterman officials had told concerned residents at the meeting that they could not divulge details about the chief’s disciplinary record. Residents said they want to know why Swanson was suspended for 30 days in mid-February.

“I’ve been with [the] Waterman Police Department for 22 years. I’ve never been suspended before, I’ve never been written up by any of my previous chiefs. I’ve got an almost spotless employment record, and the first thing out of the gate when somebody thinks I did something wrong is 30 days without pay. Seems a little extreme,” Swanson said Wednesday in an interview with Shaw Local News Network.

Swanson said he was taken aback by the support that he received from residents.

“I’ll be honest, I’m kind of taking it all in. I mean, last night, the outpouring of public support, it was very humbling. I won’t say that I’m surprised, but I’m very appreciative. So we’ve got a lot of good folks in our town,” Swanson said.

Swanson is the police department’s only full-time employee. He returned to his duties March 18 after his suspension, according to village documents published from March 12 meeting minutes.

Swanson said the letter that he received notifying him of his suspension didn’t say what he’s alleged to have done to warrant the disciplinary action. Officials also declined to share details of the chief’s suspension with the public.

“The reasons cited, they didn’t identify any rule, regulation, policy or procedure that I supposedly violated,” Swanson said. “Basically, the letter contains certain things that they think that I did, but it doesn’t identify how what I did actually violated any rule, regulation, policy or procedure. And that’s one of things that I explained to the [village] attorney.”

Swanson declined to provide the suspension letter to Shaw Local News Network.

Details sparse on suspension

Village President Pete Robinson, 76, said he thinks Swanson’s unpaid suspension was unwarranted. Robinson said he’s been on Waterman’s Village Board on and off for 25 years.

After the meeting Tuesday night, he addressed a crowd of about a dozen residents who gathered outside the village’s government building, 215 W. Adams St. He said the Waterman Police Department operates with less staff than it has had before. Where it once had three full-time and two part-time officers, it now has even fewer.

Robinson said he believes that as village president he’s the only reason Swanson hasn’t been terminated. Robinson alleged that some on the Village Board do not approve of the police chief’s actions.

“They [village trustees] drummed up something that they didn’t like. There was something that went on between some registration and stuff, and Jason’s trying like hell to be here as much as they can. They’re saying he wants to have all this training, but when he’s doing training, there’s nobody on the streets. This board really does not have a concern for police patrol,” Robinson said to the crowd.

Robinson’s time in office hasn’t been free of troubles either. He was sued in 2022 for $28,000 by his own village after Waterman officials alleged that he did not clean up the charred remains of a holiday train he owned after it burned down. That lawsuit remains pending in DeKalb County court as of Wednesday, records show.

Swanson was hired in Waterman as a part-time patrol officer in 2002 and became a full-time employee in 2003. He was sworn in as chief in May 2021. The department currently has one officer on temporary disability leave, another who works two days a week and a third who works one day per month, Swanson said.

Despite the position already being filled, the village of about 1,400 residents has posted a job listing seeking Swanson’s replacement.

Heather Neveu, an attorney representing the village of waterman, sits next to Village Trustee Adam Pearson during a village board meeting on July 9, 2024.

Village residents react

Many present at the Village Board meeting spoke out about the lack of public information that officials were willing to share.

Waterman resident Larry Mason told officials that he doesn’t understand why the village wants to find a new police chief.

“[Swanson] moved up in rank since I’ve been here, so apparently he’s been doing nothing but good, so I don’t understand why you’re looking to replace him,” Mason said.

Village attorney Heather Neveu said officials were trying to juggle the rights of Swanson as an employee and that of the public to be informed.

“There’s a delicate balance between transparency and a public’s right to know some things and an individual’s right to their privacy. And in some situations, the individual’s right to privacy is greater, and so when the board can’t answer something, it’s because it’s trying very hard to respect that individual’s right to fair privacy. So it’s a balance,” Neveu said.

Swanson asked what privacy issues officials were speaking about, and Neveu told him that he was at liberty to discuss his suspension if he wanted. Robinson urged him not to.

“It would be my advice not to [share the suspension letter]. If people want to see it privately, that’s one thing. Just remember one thing: The chief cannot be hired, fired or anything else unless the village president does it,” Robinson said.

Waterman resident Alex Bee said she was against replacing Swanson and was displeased by the board’s reasoning.

“You talk about staffing our police department properly, but yet you guys want to get rid of a police officer that’s been here for 20-something years, who knows the community, knows the people by name,” Bee said.

Village Trustee Anton Feitlich told her that the board decided to not terminate Swanson. Officials want him to stay with the department after they hire his replacement instead, Feitlich said. Her comments prompted a vocal reaction from the crowd of about 20 residents, many asking why Swanson would stay if demoted.

Village Trustee Suzanne Sedlacek said “he has an allegiance to the community.”

In response, Swanson said Wednesday that his plan was to retire from Waterman as chief. He’ll be eligible in as soon as five years. He also said he’s “nervous” to stay on with the department if a replacement chief is hired.

“That makes me pretty nervous because at this point, based on what I was told before, I have no reason to believe that them saying that they’re going to keep me on as a sergeant, and they’re not going to get rid of me but they’re going to bring another chief. Is that just their way of pacifying the public?” Swanson said.

Waterman Village Trustee Anton Feitlich said the village board is trying to rebuild the Waterman Police Department, and is beginning by hiring a new Chief of Police, during a July 9, 2024 Waterman Village Board meeting.

What’s next?

Sedlacek said village officials have begun reviewing how police officers spend their time.

“What the board wants to see is that we can see at any point in time a log of what the officers are doing throughout their shift,” Sedlacek said.

In addition to replacing Swanson, officials said the village wants to fill police officer positions but hasn’t yet been successful.

Feitlich said job listings were not published in a timely manner, but when they were, he didn’t approve of the applicants.

“When we finally got the applicants here, the people that were brought forward to the committee for consideration were not somebody that – I have two teenage daughters,” Feitlich said. “I wouldn’t have wanted them to be the police of my town. Nothing against them, it’s just not, it wasn’t a good fit from a community standpoint.”

Swanson said the applications for patrol officers were put out several times, but he believes other applicants have not been given a chance to interview.

“There were three more people to be interviewed. You guys instructed me to repost the job, and I believe it was six different applicants we got from that and none of them were interviewed,” Swanson said to the board.

Sedlacek said the Village Board approved the Gold Shield audit of the police department so it could learn more about the department’s operations.

“You don’t know what you don’t know, and we can’t tell you. That’s where we’re at. That’s the truth,” Sedlacek said.

The audit of the police department could not be found published on the village of Waterman website as of Wednesday. Officials said the document could be obtained through a public records request.

Shortly before he walked out of the meeting, Swanson asked officials to clarify what the audit said about his job performance.

“You’re talking about the audit – did anything in the audit recommend removing me or say I should get some extra training?” Swanson said to the board Tuesday.

Feitlich told him, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.”

Moments later, Robinson declared the end of the meeting’s public comment period, prompting Swanson to step outside. The chief later told Shaw Local News Network on Wednesday that he’s seen the audit and the document only recommended more training, not removal.

While talking with the residents who followed Swanson out the door, Robinson said he discouraged the police chief from reading his suspension letter because he doesn’t think it should be public knowledge.

Robinson said he was ardently opposed to the disciplinary measure.

“I don’t agree with the suspension, I didn’t then. They forced it on me, and I had to sign it. And actually, they suspended him before I signed it,” Robinson said. “Yeah, they suspended him about 9 o’clock in the morning, and I didn’t sign it until later that afternoon.”

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