Sangamon County State’s Attorney releases independent review of investigation into former Springfield police officer
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright released an independent review of his office’s handling of an investigation into a former Springfield police officer.
In April, Aaron Nichols was accused of posting racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments on social media and was placed on administrative leave with no pay. He later resigned from the department and admitted to writing those posts.
Wright’s investigation looked into whether Nichols displayed any bias or prejudice while at work.
The independent review by Sylvester Bush, a former police chief in Peoria and Cook County, confirmed Wright’s findings – that there was no evidence that Nichols engaged in discriminatory behavior on the job.
Wright did not pursue any charges against Nichols.
“I further conclude that State’s Attorney Wright’s response to this incident was not only swift and comprehensive but went above and beyond under difficult circumstances to ensure an internal review worthy of the public’s trust and confidence,” Bush wrote in the report.
The Springfield Police Department also released a final report last month of its internal investigation. They looked at Nichols’ body camera footage, arrest records and traffic stops, and found no signs of racial bias or misconduct. The department also examined Nichols’ emails, computer hard drive and messages looking for key words the former officer utilized in his posts. They discovered emails from right-wing publications.
Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, teaches a class on extremism in law enforcement and how to identify it. After the situation unfolded, the Springfield police chief, other officers, Wright, and others within his office, took Beirich’s course. Beirich said the investigations were handled well.
“That transparency, that directness, that quickness, and the willingness to be open to change, to protect the department and the community going forward, I think those are all really important things that happened in Springfield, and I think other police departments can learn from that,” Beirich said.
In his report, Bush agreed with Beirich’s assessment.
“I concur with Dr. Beirich of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism that the proactive, collaborative, thorough, and transparent review process implemented by State’s Attorney Wright and SPD, is a model of best practices in response to the exposure of Nichols’ racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ social media statements,” Bush wrote.
Beirich said having an independent review of the investigation was the right call.
“The independent voice, someone separate from the police officers directly involved, or the chief, is the only way that you can get a real sense of what this person’s impact was on the community as an officer,” Beirich said.
Not only did officials take Beirich’s course, the police department also reached out to community groups to improve transparency. That includes Black Lives Matter of Springfield, the NAACP and the Jewish Federation of Springfield.
“The most important thing about the Springfield Police Department’s report and State’s Attorney Wright’s report is the commitment to continue to work against racism, anti-Semitism [and] homophobia, and I think that says a lot for our public officials,” Nancy Sage, the executive director of the federation, said.
Beirich said that now, the focus for the police department will be whether they follow through with recommendations and advice that they have laid out moving forward. That includes additional implicit bias training for officers. They are also asking any applicant whether they have ever identified with groups that believe in the inferiority of a racial, ethnic or religious group, and any other groups based on sexual orientation.
“Independent oversight is never a bad thing to reassure community members that you’re taking the steps you promised,” Beirich said.
Say believes based on the police department report that they will continue to make changes, calling it “the best outcome of a horrible, … devastating situation.”
“There is an ongoing commitment to make changes within the department, whether it be policy, whether it be the reporting system, etc., to prevent this kind of abhorrent discrimination and hate within the department and to set the standard,” Sage said.