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Residents continue to call for transparency, discuss racial implications of police chief firing

Audience members are still filing in while camera from several Chicago television stations are setting up prior to the Flossmoor Board of Trustees meeting on March 18, where a resolution to terminate Police Chief Jerel Jones was on the agenda. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

Prior to the Flossmoor Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, March 18, there was some confusion about whether and why Jerel Jones was being terminated as the village’s first Black police chief.

After the meeting, the question of “whether” had been answered, but some residents were still asking “why.”

Mayor Michelle Nelson allowed an extended public comment period, and after 45 minutes of comments, the board approved its consent agenda and then moved to the nearby conference room to convene in closed session.

After nearly an hour and a half, the board returned and took up a resolution to terminate Jones’ appointment, which was approved by a 4 to 3 vote.

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Timeline
The confusion over his employment status emerged publicly at the board’s March 4 meeting, when a large crowd showed up in response to rumors that Jones was about to be fired. However, village officials are not able to publicly address personnel issues to protect the privacy of employees, so no statements were made in answer to residents’ questions.

On Thursday, March 7, Mayor Michelle Nelson issued a statement that attempted to provide context for the situation.

“Because this matter is tearing at our community, I need to take this opportunity to provide residents with some context, based on valid, credible information, not rumor,” she said.

She noted that “there have been serious operational and administrative lapses under his watch,” and she concluded with “it has become clear that it is best for the Village if all parties part ways.”

The chief of police serves as a mayoral appointment in Flossmoor, so Jones apparently took the statement to mean that he had been fired. He and his attorneys held a news conference on Monday, March 11, to announce a federal lawsuit that named the village and Village Manager Bridge Wachtel as defendants.

The first paragraph under “Nature of the Case” in the complaint states, “This case involves the Village of Flossmoor’s termination of its first Black police chief, Jerel, as an act of race discrimination and retaliation.”

In the materials for the Monday, March 18, meeting was an unsigned memo explaining why a resolution terminating Jones’ appointment was on the agenda.

“Jerel Jones was appointed as Police Chief on March 27, 2023, and began his employment on March 29, 2023. Over the past year, I have documented and communicated performance concerns to the Chief that have not been rectified.  The performance concerns have been communicated to the Mayor and Board.

“Contrary to what has been communicated in the press, Chief Jones has continued to be employed and has not been terminated to date.

“A resolution terminating his contract is attached. The Board’s action on this resolution has no impact on the pending litigation that was recently filed.”

The Chronicle sent email and a text the evening of March 7 to Nelson asking for clarification whether the “part ways” she referred to in her statement meant Jones had been terminated or was resigning, and she replied that she did not have concrete answers to provide at the time.

Flossmoor Mayor Michelle Nelson, left, and Village Manager Bridget Wachtel prepare for the March 18 board meeting. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
Flossmoor Mayor Michelle Nelson, left, and Village Manager Bridget Wachtel prepare for the March 18 board meeting. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

The resolution language suggests a letter offering Jones the position as police chief served as his contract. The letter was attached to the resolution on the village website. The resolution text reflects severance terms contained in the letter.

“Section 1.  That Jerel Jones’ employment as Police Chief of the Flossmoor Police Department as provided in the attached employment contract is hereby terminated, effective this date and that severance be paid at his current salary until the first to occur: (i) ninety (90) days from this date; or, (ii) he has found employment in any capacity, all as provided in the Offer of Employment dated February 20, 2023, attached hereto.

“Section 2.  That this Resolution shall be in full force and effect from and after its passage and approval as provided by law.”

Questions remain
A number of residents who spoke during the meeting continued the call for more transparency from the village.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, a Flossmoor resident, did not address the board, but while trustees were in closed session, she told the Chronicle that she echoed their concerns.

“If there’s an issue of concern about safety and administration of justice here, we should know,” she said. “To have a police chief for less than a year without any indication of what would lead to his ouster leads to people feeling uncomfortable. As a resident, I just feel like they owe it to us to be more transparent.”

On March 11, the day Jones’ lawsuit was announced, a group of Flossmoor residents led by sisters Shana Easterling and Kiana Jones (no relation to Jerel) held a rally outside village hall to express their opposition to his termination and to demand more transparency on the issue by the village.

Their group was stationed outside village hall again before the March 18 meeting, inviting people to sign a petition seeking more transparency. They said about 100 people signed the petition and they plan to post it online.

Easterling said information provided by the village to that point, including Nelson’s statement, had not provided the explanation her group hoped to see.

“At this point, we’re just asking for answers,” she said.

Following the meeting they remained unsatisfied with the information available so far about why Jones was terminated.

“Still no transparency,” Kiana Jones said. “No answers.”

Easterling said the group plans to continue seeking information and expressing opposition to Jones’ termination.

“The fact that they voted down racial lines says a lot,” she said. “A lot of people think that we always go to race as the answer. They’ve given us no choice. This is very disappointing.”

The village’s three Black trustees voted against the resolution terminating Jones. The three white trustees voted in favor. Nelson broke the tie, voting in favor.

Racial overtones
Kevin Dorsey, a member of the village’s Community Relations Commission, spoke with reporters prior to the meeting and said without more compelling evidence of wrongdoing by Jones the racial implications of the situation need to be considered.

“We have a history in this country, and not just a past history,” he said. “We even have a recent history that there is unfair treatment of African Americans. African Americans are judged more harshly and suffer more severe consequences for the same or lesser offenses than their white counterparts. Are those things part of this?

“I think this community is wonderful. But this is something that clearly needs to be addressed. There are two Americas. I just don’t want there to be two Flossmoors.”

After the meeting, Dorsey said the result was not unexpected but he was saddened that the community appeared to be dividing in ways similar to the ways the country is divided, something he had not experienced in his more than two decades living in Flossmoor.

Susan Bass, who said she has lived in Flossmoor 57 years, spoke during the meeting and also mentioned the recent division in the community.

“I’m here in support of the board, in support of the village manager,” she said. “My children’s best friends were Black. My friends were Black. Now it’s not like that any more. Everybody’s fighting with everybody. Everybody should stick together. That’s what Flossmoor’s all about.”

Related stories:

Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef approaches the dais during the March 18 Flossmoor board meeting shouting “say her name.” The founder of Tikkun Chai Inter-National is affiliated with local group, Justice for Madeline Miller, which protests the police shooting of Miller in 2022. Police escorted Yosef from the board room because of the disturbance.
(Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

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