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Although it was 2008 when off-duty Champaign police detective Lisa Staples was caught driving drunk in an unmarked squad car, only recently were police reports describing the incident obtained. Many were outraged when Staples was given a lighter punishment than other DUI cases in Champaign County. But the public was kept from knowing the extent of her intoxication or the embarrassing details of her arrest. This case and others have led to a campaign for more harsh drug and alcohol testing for Champaign police officers.
In March 2009, I sent a FOIA request for police reports on the Staples case to the Illinois State Police. Notorious for their denials of public information, the state police summarily denied my request. After new FOIA legislation took effect in Illinois on January 1, 2010, I re-submitted my request. Now forced to obey the law, the state police handed over their records.
According to a report written by Illinois State Police Sergeant B.K. Ingram, he responded to a call at approximately 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, November 30, 2008. Several drivers had spotted a car going the wrong way, travelling westbound in eastbound traffic, on Interstate 72. It was a cold night, it was snowing, and there was ice on the road.
A Piatt County deputy had stopped the gray 2007 Nissan Altima, found out that it was owned by the Champaign Police Department, and the driver was Lisa Staples, an off-duty police officer. The Illinois State Police were called for assistance. When Sergeant Ingram arrived, he approached the car and asked Staples to open the locked door. When Staples opened the door, Ingram says he, “immediately smelled an overwhelming odor of alcoholic liquor coming from inside the Nissan.”
Asked to exit the car, Staples got out and stood up, “fumbling forward.” She did not know where she was. She was dressed in a long sleeve shirt, blue jeans, and fuzzy pink house slippers. According to Ingram, “It appeared Staples had urinated in her pants as the crotch of her jeans was soaking wet.” When Ingram said that it looked like she had wet her pants, Staples replied, “I probably did. I’m sorry.” Ingram writes in his report, “I observed the front of her jeans was completely unfastened and slightly pulled down, exposing her panties. I brought Staples’ attention to this and asked her to fasten her pants.”
Staples was also rambling incoherently. When Ingram asked where her driver’s license was, she said, “Um, I’m sorry. It’s probably on my person which is not on my person, which is correct.” She was eventually given a ticket for not carrying a driver’s licence.
Staples refused to take a field sobriety test or a breath test and was immediately placed under arrest. Ingram states that he put her in handcuffs and before putting her into the squad car, “placed several layers of paper towel on the passenger seat.” At the Champaign County jail, Ingram read Staples her Miranda rights. She began laughing and joked that she was waiving her rights, “as she waved her raised arms side to side.”
Other reports filled out by Ingram noted that Staples was “swaying,” “staggering,” and “stumbling.” Although she told other police she only had “three drinks,” she had admitted to Ingram that she was “fucked up.”
Although being issued a DUI while driving a department vehicle was grounds for termination, Staples was placed on administrative leave with pay while an internal investigation was conducted. Because of her working relationship with the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s Office, the case was assigned to special prosecutor Tony Lee, a former State’s Attorney in Ford County. Unlike Champaign County where first-time DUI offenders lose their license, in Ford County offenders are often only sentenced to court supervision. Staples’ attorney Ed Piraino and Tony Lee worked out a deal where Staples only got supervision.
At a hearing on December 18 before Judge Richard Klaus, Piraino and Lee both agreed that this arrangement would allow Staples to keep her job as a police officer. As Piraino said, “If she can’t drive, she can’t be a police officer.” Judge Klaus accepted the deal and Staples pleaded guilty to misdemeanour driving under the influence. She was allowed to keep her driver’s license and therefore remain on the force. Her punishment was 18 months of court supervision, 250 hours of public service, a $750 fine, and she was required to wear an alcohol-monitoring bracelet. As part of her public service, she was allowed to give lectures to high school students about the dangers of drunk driving. If these terms were completed, the case could be expunged, and she would have a clean record.
After six months, a petition to revoke her court supervision was filed when Staples tampered with her alcohol-monitoring bracelet and it was inoperable 24 hours, but she miraculously got another break and it was dropped.
On December 19, the very day after the plea deal was accepted, Elizabeth Drewes was driving drunk going the wrong direction on Insterstate 72, struck a minivan, and killed bride-to-be Brittany Babb. The parallels between this tragic story and the Staples case could not be ignored by the public. Dozens of letters to the editor poured into the News-Gazette complaining about the “sweatheart deal” given to Staples. Local defence attorneys who deal with DUI cases protested the unequal treatment.
On January 7, 2009, Lisa Staples handed in her resignation letter to the Champaign Police Department, surely the result of public pressure. Police Chief R.T. Finney told the News-Gazette it was her decision, “Lisa was a very good detective and employee. That’s what makes it so tough.”
Many studies have shown that the rate of alcoholism among police officers is higher than the general public. There is an irony to this as police are required to arrest drunk drivers, conduct sweeps at local bars for underage drinking, and hand out tickets for public drunkenness. Indeed, many of the offenders police deal with on a daily basis are under the influence of alcohol. Moreover, police are called on to prosecute a “War on Drugs” which has sent hundreds of thousands of citizens to prison for drug charges.
In addition to the Staples case, there have been other indications of alcoholism among local police. On New Year’s night 2001, University of Illinois police officer Collin Jay Harmon killed himself while drinking beers with fellow officers and playing a game of Russian Roulette. In 2008, another UIPD officer, Curtis Bolding, resigned after choking his wife and threatening to kill her while he was in a drunken fit.
Recently, there have been a number of high-profile cases in Chicago of off-duty police officers who were caught on video beating up citizens while drunk. Chicago police officer Anthony Abbate was fired after beating up a female bartender, video of which can be seen on YouTube. As a result of these cases, Chicago City Council ratified new changes to the police union contract requiring that lieutenants and captains undergo more stringent drug and alcohol testing.
Locally, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice is circulating a similar proposal to the upcoming negotiations of the Champaign police union contract. Among the changes is a requirement for mandatory drug and alcohol testing when a police officer is directly involved in an incident which results in death or great bodily harm or if the officer has fired his or her weapon. A campaign for this and other revisions to the police union contract comes in the wake of the death of Kiwane Carrington at the hands of a Champaign police officer.