Investigating “G.I. Joe” | A Critical Incident
Chief George Filenko Guest Author
The events of September 1, 2015 were a life changing experience not only for me but for thousands of officers that somehow became a part of the Lt. Joseph Gliniewicz saga. On that hot, humid, sunny day radio traffic no officer ever wants hear was broadcast, “Officer Down. Lt. Joseph “GI Joe” Gliniewicz had been found mortally shot. Nothing could prepare my team, or me, for the roller coaster ride of emotions we were about to experience for the next two months. The stress, pressure, both internal and external would take a toll on even the most seasoned veteran.
Recently I was discussing this case with one of my Assistant Commanders. He made a comment that he felt that I was going to quit the case twice. I laughed at his observation and responded telling him, at a point “I considered quitting everyday!” The national climate was such that another killing of a police officer seemed as if the police were under attack. The national media immediately occupied the town of Fox Lake. The parking lot of the small town police station was filled with satellite trucks displaying banners of every known media outlet in the country. Several police officers had been murdered throughout the country within the past two weeks. The interest in the the slaying of another police officer, especially one with the name “GI Joe,” was too much temptation not to cover. This incident went viral immediately.
Within hours rumors began circulating that this was an “an inside job”, a mob hit, suicide, a drug deal gone bad. As Commander of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force, one of my many responsibilities include providing my team with not only the resources to get the job done but to shield them from external and internal pressure so they can focus on the task at hand. No incident than that of a murdered police officer can generate as much anger, loss of regular thought process and an obsession to find the killers quickly. All of these emotions are contrary to a thorough investigative process. “We would rather take our time and get it right then rush to conclusions and get it wrong.” This always needs to be the mantra in a thorough investigation.
“Wisdom is the right use of knowledge” Charles Haddon Spurgeon
The media’s demand for information under the guise of public safety was overwhelming. I agree that the public’s right to know is essential and using the media as a means of relating information is extremely effective. However, the investigation takes priority and limits us. Errant release of information could derail an investigation and damage prosecution down the road. Controlled release of information is a requirement, not an option.
One of the first things that became apparent was the need for a Public Information Officer (PIO). The Lake County Sheriffs Office had taken charge of the search for the suspects. To their credit and my thanks they immediately reached out and offered the assistance of their PIO, Detective Chris Covelli. Chris soon became one our greatest resources. He came in the perfect place at the exact time he was needed.
The daily briefings with the media became more and more antagonistic. The questions more repetitive the stress began to wear us down. Had it not been for Chris and my two Assistant Commanders, John Erik Anderson, a brilliant investigator in charge of a team specifically assigned to do the victimology on Gliniewicz, and Kyle Helgesen our operations Commander who was an expert in violent crimes, I’m not certain any of us would have made it through this case. We instructed our Investigators to avoid watching news reports and prohibited them from discussing the investigation outside of our team. We wanted them to focus on the investigation and not be influenced by outside speculation, opinion and criticism by so called experts who had no idea what information or evidence we were dealing with.
I recalled recently watching a documentary about the 1985 Chicago Bears. One piece of information I pocketed was then quarterback Jim McMahon, whether knowingly or not, taking the stress and pressure away from his teammates by being the focus media attention. As much as I dreaded that role, in retrospect, I hope in some way it took away the anxiety and stress from our team.
With the assistance of the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), our conclusions were unequivocally confirmed that this was a staged scene made to appear as a homicide to cover a suicide. We were relieved that the truth was finally uncovered and leery of the onslaught we knew was headed our way.
November 4, 2015 was the day we chose to make the announcement of our findings. A press conference was announced 12 hours ahead of time. An entire day of preparation was spent projecting the questions from the media. The day of the news conference began at 8:30 AM and ended 20 individual interviews later at 9:00 PM. Much of that day remains a blur. I have only one regret about a question that was asked by an extremely hostile reporter. She asked if I thought I owed the residents of Fox Lake an apology for deceiving them. I finally was beginning to feel the stress and regretfully only answered her with a simple “No”. In retrospect my answer should have been the individual who owes Fox Lake an apology is Gliniewicz, he betrayed his community, his oath, his badge.
As a critical incident response instructor I have trained hundreds of police executives, command level officers and first responders. Part of this training involves a segment on police stress. I’ve found that many officers are open to discussing critical incidents involving themselves in a forum with their peers. It provides them a unique outlet and gives them an opportunity to express openly the effects and emotional scars these types of incidents leave. We left that day regretfully never discussing this case as a unit, many of us returning to our regular assignments without the benefit of a critical incident stress debriefing.
Returning home to family and attempting to ease back into a normal routine was difficult. Without a support network of family and friends the adjustment to normality, whatever that is, would’ve been impossible.
There is no shame in speaking to professionals who are expert in helping us through a personal crisis. The years of suicides, homicides, child abuse cases take a toll on each of us, these incidents chip away at you slowly and methodically without notice or warning. Gliniewicz committed the ultimate betrayal, taking his own life and damaging those of dozens perhaps hundreds. Don’t let this kind of thing happen to you or one of your men. Seek help when you need it. Schedule what is needed for mental health. An critical incident is not over when the bad guy is caught or the terror has stopped. It goes on.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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