This story is part of a partnership focusing on police misconduct in Champaign County between the Champaign-Urbana Civic Police Data Project of the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit public accountability journalism organization, and IPM Newsroom, which provides news about Illinois & in-depth reporting on Agriculture, Education, the Environment, Health, and Politics, powered by Illinois Public Media. This investigation was supported with funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project, which is funded by the Google News Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University | Medill.
CHAMPAIGN — After two fatal officer-involved shootings in early 2023, the Rantoul Police Department conducted internal investigations into the use of force during those incidents.
Newly obtained documents show the department cleared three officers involved in the city’s first-ever fatal police shootings — including the two who pulled the trigger — and found one officer violated department policies.
In February, Officer Jose Aceves shot and killed 21-year-old Azaan Lee, and in June, Officer Jerry King shot and killed 18-year-old Jordan Richardson in the village of 12,000 north of Champaign-Urbana.
The internal investigations into the shootings occurred in the weeks following the incidents. But the findings were not made public on the department’s transparency site until Nov. 9 — 11 days after the Invisible Institute and Illinois Public Media requested the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The documents reveal that, while Rantoul police absolved both Aceves and King of wrongdoing, the department’s Use of Force Review Board made almost identical recommendations for additional department-level training in both cases.
The review board found that Officer Jerry King, who shot and killed Jordan Richardson during a traffic stop in June, acted within policy. Still, the board ordered that King receive both individual and department-level training.
Similarly, the review board did not find that Officer Aceves’ actions were out of policy when he shot and killed Azaan Lee, but recommended that he undergo additional firearm training. Aceves can be heard on video released by RPD saying that he shot Lee with Lee’s own weapon.
In separate preliminary investigations, which looked at whether King and Aceves committed crimes when they pulled the trigger, Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz concluded that the shootings of both Richardson and Lee were legally justifiable.
Rietz’s decisions have led to local pushback in recent months. The Party for Socialism and Liberation rallied outside the Champaign County Courthouse on Oct. 29 demanding an independent investigation of the fatal shootings, citing a distrust in the ability of law enforcement to police themselves.
At the protest, organizers said they were distrustful of Rietz because of her long-standing reputation for not finding police guilty of wrongdoing.
One officer did violate policy
The review board found that Rantoul Police Officer Rene Wissel, who was on the scene when Officer Jerry King shot Richardson, was in violation of department policy and procedures and he did not attempt to de-escalate the situation.
Officer Wissel violated three sections of RPD’s standards of conduct — including “unreasonable and unwarranted force,” “exceeding lawful peace officer powers by unreasonable, unlawful, or excessive conduct” and using “obscene, indecent profane or derogatory language while on-duty.” The board also found he violated the use of force policy by not de-escalating the situation.
Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Reitz said that Officer Wissel suffered a broken tooth, WCIA reported, after eventually arresting Jheremia McKown, who was detained in the car with Richardson and charged with gun and drug offenses.
The board recommended that Officer Wissel receive de-escalation training, suspect management training and a “refresher” on the department’s standards of conduct and use of force policy.
In the body camera video, Officer Wissel forces McKown to the ground while saying, “Get on the motherf***ing ground.”
Later, Officer Wissel grabs McKown’s neck and forces him into the back of a department’s squad car saying, “Get in the motherf***ing car.” While McKown sits inside the car, Wissel again grabs him by the neck to push him further into the backseat.
“You ain’t have to grab me like that bro,” McKown said in the body camera footage, which is posted on the Rantoul Transparency site. “I hope you had your camera on too when you were doing all of that.”
According to RPD’s policy manual, the board does not have the authority to recommend discipline. After the review board makes its decision, the Chief of Police will make a final decision and can initiate discipline.
In 2022, the Rantoul Police Department reported 99 use-of-force reports, as shown on the Rantoul Transparency Dashboard. Black people are disproportionately affected, accounting for over 44 percent of the subjects of force. Census data show 19 percent of Rantoul residents are Black.
In a separate incident, King was investigated for posting photos of himself on social media wearing a black mask. The department said in June that a third party would review King’s posts, and that review would be posted on the transparency dashboard. No such review has been posted.
Richardson’s mother has alleged that the recent Rantoul Township High School graduate had previously been the subject of force by the RPD, saying that the department had “been on my son’s heels for months.” After the shootings of Richardson and Lee, Rantoul resident Kevin Williams published an essay he wrote in 2009 about his experiences being pulled over for “Driving While Black” in Rantoul.
Follow through on department recommendations
The documents from the internal investigation reveal differences in how the cases were handled, including who was included on the Use of Force Review boards. In the case of Azaan Lee’s death, the members were all Rantoul officers. But in Jordan Richardson’s case, two Champaign County Sheriff’s supervisors were present.
Each incident had a different makeup of board members, according to Rantoul Deputy Chief Justin Bouse. Because Sergeant King is higher up in the department hierarchy, the board needed Champaign County Sheriff’s Office members to fulfill the department’s policy, Bouse wrote in an email.
The Department continues to meet all state mandates for ongoing officer training, Deputy Chief Justin Bouse said.
“The Rantoul Police Department has also been proactive in sending officers to additional training,” Bouse wrote in an email. These trainings include Crisis Intervention Team training, Non-Escalation & De-Escalation training and Control Tactics courses, according to the department.
When asked how the department measures the efficacy of the recommendations, Bouse said they do not have a specific measure. “The department utilizes Illinois statute, best practices, and recommendations by police staff to provide training opportunities to each officer that ensure compliance with state training mandates,” Deputy Chief Bouse wrote.
The department-level training includes reality-based training under stress, “force-on-force” training, using control tactics from multiple positions and a “refresher” on the department’s use-of-force policy.
“Force on Force” training, as defined by the department, gives officers the opportunity to respond to different scenarios in a controlled environment.
After learning about the findings of the internal investigation, Jayde Ray, a Rantoul resident and activist, said she wants to know more about the impact of the review board’s recommendations.
“I am actually left with more questions than answers,” Ray said.
Farrah Anderson is an investigative reporting fellow with the Invisible Institute and Illinois Public Media, and a journalism student at the University of Illinois. Follow her on Twitter @farrahsoa.