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Our View: Shake-up with NIU police is a necessary step

It’s time for change to come in earnest at the Northern Illinois University Police Department.

The NIU police need to be more accountable to the public and more open to working with other law enforcement agencies. To do that, new leadership is needed.

University officials have stuck with NIU Police Chief Donald Grady through past trouble spots. Grady was placed on paid leave in 2009 after the editor of NIU’s student newspaper said Grady harangued him for three hours about the paper’s coverage of a questionable police hire. Grady was reinstated a month later after a performance review.

What transpired in Presiding Judge Robbin Stuckert’s courtroom Nov. 2 proved too much to overlook.

Stuckert found that NIU police intentionally withheld witness statements from prosecutors. The statements were in connection with a rape case in which NIU police investigated one of their former officers, Andrew Rifkin.

Not long after Rifkin was charged Oct. 28, 2011, two university students visited the NIU police station and said Rifkin’s accuser had told them she had a consensual relationship with Rifkin and that Rifkin never assaulted her. They spoke to Grady and police Lt. Kartik Ramakrishnan that day, but their statements were not shared with the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office, and no police report was ever made about the episode.

The fact that NIU police were investigating one of their own officers for a crime allegedly committed in Cortland – outside their jurisdiction – was suspect to start. To top it off, they concealed evidence in what Stuckert called the most flagrant violation of due process rules she had seen as a judge.

Stuckert has ruled that Rifkin’s trial will continue, but jurors will hear about the statements and the fact NIU police withheld them.

In response, university officials have taken steps that will be helpful in making changes. On Friday, they took the responsibility for supervising the NIU police away from Executive Vice President Eddie Williams and named Bill Nicklas the acting director of police and public safety.

Nicklas spent 13 years as city manager of Sycamore; before then he was city manager in DeKalb. He has succeeded in working with a number of different groups in the past, is known for his skill as an administrator, and is a respected community leader.

On Saturday, Grady was placed on administrative leave for the second time in his tenure, as was Ramakrishnan. The university has begun the termination process against Ramakrishnan. Given that Grady earns a whopping $205,000 a year, he might receive a decent payout to walk away.

We prefer not to spend public money on severance pay that is a result of poor leadership, but in this case, it’s worth it to make a new start.

The university should present the opportunity to lead its police force – at a reduced but still great salary – to a wide pool of experienced law enforcers as well as to acting Chief Darren Mitchell.

The NIU police need a cultural change and a fresh start. The department needs a leader who will speak to the local media, who will work with law enforcement colleagues, and who will hold others accountable.

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