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Champaign County Sheriff’s Office knew Norman Meeker had an alcohol problem for a decade. Why did it take a flipped truck and a DUI for Meeker to leave the force?

Sam Stecklow, Invisible Institute and Dylan Tiger

This story is part of a partnership between the Invisible Institute and CU-CitizenAccess exploring police misconduct in Champaign County.

Champaign County Sheriff’s Sergeant Norman “JR” Meeker had a 10-year history of disciplinary violations, including destruction of personal property, contract violations, a Tik Tok account that shared bodycam videos of crime scenes, and mountains of missed paperwork. 

Yet, he was still employed and promoted at the Sheriff’s Office until he flipped a truck while drunk.

Champaign County Sheriff’s Office records suggest a systemic inability to deal with over-the-top behavior from its officers — a system in which a sergeant can be disciplined regularly, suspected for having alcohol problems for over a decade, violate contracts and be accused of using racial slurs — yet keep their job. 

In the early hours of August 15, Mahomet police responded to an overturned pickup truck near the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve, which resulted in the arrest of the vehicle’s driver for driving under the influence and fleeing the scene of a crime: longtime Champaign County Sheriff’s Sergeant Norman “JR” Meeker. 

Meeker, who is now retired, was released without needing to post a cash bond and entered a plea deal in early November.

Meeker and his attorney could not be reached after repeated requests for comment.

Throughout his career, he has been the subject of multiple allegations of serious misconduct, but the sheriff’s office has largely not taken action over the years. Records show many complaints against Meeker, including the use of racial slurs during an altercation with a neighbor, off-duty alcohol issues and incorrectly-filed paperwork requiring discipline.

At the same time as he apparently struggled with alcohol issues, he also led the department in DUI arrests.

Even former Sheriff Dan Walsh attempted to remove him for violating his contract’s employment policy, but the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union, stepped in to reinstate Meeker by appealing.

In another instance, a woman was forced to go to the hospital for a “mental health emergency” by Meeker after he broke her door by forcing it open during a conversation she was trying to end. 

In fact, Meeker was only ever regularly disciplined for missing or late paperwork, and other investigations into complaints were dropped or gave little to no consequence, an investigation by the Invisible Institute and CU-CitizenAccess shows. Although the office had information suggesting the sergeant had a problem with alcohol for over a decade, there’s no indication that the office ever took steps to get him help or discipline him when it received complaints involving his drinking.

Public records reveal inconsistencies in Meeker’s story

Mahomet Police Officer Benjamin Williamson saw that the GMC Sierra had crashed into the guardrail separating Lake of the Woods Road from the Mahomet Village Bike Trail, according to reports obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request. 

Witnesses at the scene told officers that the vehicle’s “sole occupant” had fled into the thick brush on the side of the roadway. Based on the car, which was registered to the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office, as well as witnesses’ description of the occupant, a sheriff’s deputy who arrived on scene guessed that the driver of the car was Norman “JR” Meeker, a sergeant who had been with the Sheriff’s Office for nearly 25 years.

Mahomet officers then searched the car, finding Meeker’s cell phone, badge, and loaded personal handgun, which he had abandoned in the flipped truck. A half-hour after arriving at the scene, sheriff’s deputies then located a clearly intoxicated Meeker curled up on the ground near a fence surrounding a cell tower on the property of the Mahomet Parks and Recreation Department, around 400 feet away from the crash site. He was only wearing one shoe, which matched another “lodged in the steering wheel” of his truck.

Meeker was taken to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, where he told Officer Williamson, “Make sure you document that the injuries are on my right side, because that’s consistent with me sitting in the passenger seat.” At the scene, he claimed that a man named “Mike,” whom he had encountered and picked up at a bar that night, was driving at the time of the crash. 

Mahomet police reports don’t contain any documentation that “Mike” was ever located or interviewed. Though it is partially obscured, surveillance video footage Mahomet police obtained from It’ll Do, the Mahomet sports bar that Meeker had patronized before the crash, shows him walk unsteadily to his car at 1:18am, get in the driver’s side, sit there with the car’s headlights on for three minutes, then pull out of the parking lot. The footage doesn’t show anyone else get into his car.

When Williamson asked why Meeker, who was slurring his words, wasn’t driving his own vehicle, Meeker simply responded, “Because [Mike] was going to St. Jo[seph],” the Champaign County village where Meeker lives. 

Meeker refused multiple times to submit to a blood draw, though he did admit to drinking three Bud Lights earlier that night in Farmer City, a small community in neighboring DeWitt County best known for its 2018 self-designation as a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.” A sheriff’s  deputy later interviewed by Mahomet officers said that he had seen Meeker earlier that day at a “Back the Badge Fest” in Farmer City and afterwards at It’ll Do, which is just east of where Meeker flipped his truck. 

The deputy told Mahomet police that, at It’ll Do, Meeker “had a beer in his hands all the time.”

Norman “JR” Meeker drinks a beer at the bar It’ll Do. Security footage obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Meeker, however, claimed that he was just visiting friends at It’ll Do and didn’t drink any more. When Williamson asked why he had abandoned the car, he said that he was chasing Mike, who fled first. Two eyewitnesses interviewed by Williamson said that he had opened the passenger door of the car, but didn’t see anyone else at the scene. One of them asked if he was the only person in the car, which Meeker confirmed, then slowly walked away towards the brush.

William Pelarenos, an expert in Illinois DUI cases and a former Cook County Sheriff’s deputy, wrote in an email that he found the Mahomet investigation to be “thorough” after reviewing case and court files. 

In an interview conducted two weeks after the crash by the Sheriff’s Office as part of a disciplinary investigation, Meeker admitted that he did not know who Mike was. “I know I’ve said that,” he told Lt. Tony Shaw, “but I don’t know where it came from.” He said that he “barely [had] a snapshot” of what occurred that night. If he knew who had been driving his truck, he said, “I would have obviously gone forward with that information. I’m definitely not protecting anybody.” 

He filed a letter initiating his retirement that day, writing that it would be effective in ten days as long as his discipline was resolved by allowing him to use benefit time to serve a ten-day suspension and retire in good standing.

John Walker, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving regional executive director for Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, said in a statement that his organization “is troubled by this individual officer’s decision to drive impaired, and expects all citizens, private and public, to make plans before consuming any impairing substance, taking impaired driving out of the equation,” but added that MADD continues “to support law enforcement in Champaign County, their commitment to public safety and the citizens they serve.”

Meeker, a native of Tolono, was hired by the sheriff’s office in 1997 after brief stints with small departments in the villages of Bement, Ludlow, Gifford and Tolono, as well as the Ford County Sheriff’s Office, which he joined after four years in the Marines. 

In 1989, the year he joined the Marines, he was arrested by the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office on misdemeanor battery charges for punching two people. Court records show that the case was dismissed after ten days. It doesn’t appear that CCSO was aware of its own arrest of Meeker when it hired him; his application only asked if he had ever been convicted of a crime or placed on probation, to which he answered no, and the criminal history check included with his hiring documents showed that he had no record on file aside from a traffic infraction. The sheriff’s office did not respond to a detailed list of questions submitted for this story a week before publication.

Additionally, a polygraph test he was required to take asked if he had ever committed “a serious undetected crime” or used “excessive force against another person.” Meeker only admitted to the traffic fine he’d paid in St. Louis four years earlier, and some petty theft and cannabis use while working at a fast food restaurant from his teenage years.

His hiring process wasn’t the only time the department appeared to overlook misconduct over the course of Meeker’s employment. Records show a pattern of leaving allegations of excessive force and alcohol use uninvestigated.

Alcohol problems recurred throughout Meeker’s career

Meeker, who was released from police custody without having to pay any bond and entered into a plea deal on November 4 — nearly three months after the crash — has a lengthy disciplinary record with the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Invisible Institute. They clearly show that Meeker has struggled with alcohol use throughout the years, and has been accused of being physically confrontational — while both on-duty and off-duty, and allegedly drunk. 

The records suggest that while the department has punished Meeker for some infractions — mostly dealing with late paperwork — the more troubling allegations of misconduct were left largely uninvestigated, let alone disciplined. At the same time, Meeker has been one of the office’s most active officers in making arrests in recent years, including DUI arrests. 

In November 2011, when Meeker was a deputy, a sergeant wrote in an email to Shane Cook, then also a sergeant, that he instructed a deputy to go to Meeker’s house one morning after he couldn’t reach Meeker about some paperwork for a DUI arrest that was missing from the office. When the deputy arrived, a “juvenile” answered the door and told the deputy that Meeker had taken medication and was asleep.

While the minor searched for the paperwork inside the house, the deputy looked inside Meeker’s squad car parked outside. He “did not see the citations but did see a 750 ml bottle of liquor (possibly Bacardi Vodka) that was ½ to ¾ full sitting in the front passenger seat,” the sergeant wrote to Cook.

Despite this potential violation of policies — at the time, the sheriff’s office forbade drinking while on-duty, and prohibited off-duty officers from getting so drunk that they are “unfit to report for an emergency” — the only allegations that were sustained involved issues around the paperwork being turned in late. Meeker does not appear to have been disciplined at all. The liquor in Meeker’s squad car and Meeker’s inability to come to the door were left uninvestigated.

Almost a decade later, on January 7, 2020, a neighbor of Meeker’s in St. Joseph alleged to Lt. Tony Shaw that Meeker had showed up to the house of another neighbor who had around 15 to 20 people over to watch a rented UFC fight. Meeker was not invited, and several witnesses interviewed by Shaw said he was drunk when he arrived. According to the neighbor, Meeker tried to “goad” him into wrestling, saying, “Me and you are going to tangle one of these times.” 

The neighbor also alleged that Meeker used a racial slur about a Black deputy who was formerly assigned to patrol St. Joseph, claiming that the deputy had been fired from the University of Illinois Police Department and that CCSO had been “forced” to hire him.

Two other witnesses interviewed by Shaw over the next week confirmed the neighbor’s description of Meeker’s general demeanor, but both said they didn’t feel the situation got out of hand, and didn’t recall hearing any racial slurs used. 

On January 13, a mutual acquaintance of Meeker and the neighbor told Shaw that the previous summer, Meeker and the neighbor were both at Roch’s, a sports bar in St. Joseph. The neighbor was eating at a table with his wife and a group of friends, and Meeker, who was at the bar “very intoxicated,” began hitting on the neighbor’s wife, upsetting the neighbor. The mutual acquaintance then told Shaw that Meeker attempted to drive home from the bar, before accepting a ride home, indicating his willingness to drive under the influence. 

“Both of these incidents indicated to me that [Meeker] is out of control and has some serious anger issues when he has been drinking,” the neighbor wrote in a typed complaint.

Shaw and CCSO Capt. Shane Cook brought up the complaint to Meeker during an unrelated meeting on January 16, using vague descriptions because, at that time, the neighbor had not filed a written complaint and wished to remain anonymous. 

“Sgt. Meeker was caught off-guard by these allegations,” Shaw wrote. “Sgt. Meeker stated he rarely goes out and consumes alcohol. Sgt. Meeker said he could not recall any incident where anything remotely close to what was alleged occurred.”

When the neighbor submitted his typed complaint on January 23, about three weeks after first notifying Shaw about his concerns about Meeker, Shaw then initiated a formal investigation of the allegations. 

“With your typed narrative, outlining your concerns and detailing these specific incidents, we are obligated to make this a more formalized complaint process,” he wrote to the neighbor. “At some point, we will speak with Sgt. Meeker about these specific incidents.”

However, aside from a couple of brief meetings and phone calls — one on January 29, in which Meeker was advised of the formal investigation and “indicated he may know what incident this is related to now, but that nothing inappropriate occurred”; and another on February 5 in which “Meeker again stressed, nothing he said or did was inappropriate” and that “he does not condone racially insensitive statements” — it doesn’t appear that investigators ever officially questioned Meeker about the allegations. 

Documents reflect that, on February 6, Lt. Shaw spoke with the friend Meeker was with that night, who denied any allegations of misconduct, and the investigation was closed shortly thereafter. “All parties spoken to with no definitive/blatant acts determined,” the undated CCSO Report of Facts By Command Officer form reads. “No further action requested. No official complaint form completed.” 

Despite informing the neighbor that the office was going to “make this a more formalized complaint process,” it doesn’t appear that investigators ever asked the neighbor to fill out the official complaint form — the absence of which is cited as a reason to close the investigation. However, the CCSO policy manual says that “Individuals from the public may make complaints in any form.”

The case was closed with a Not Sustained final disposition from Sheriff Dustin Heuerman, which is defined in the policy manual as a conclusion that there’s “insufficient evidence to sustain the complaint or fully exonerate the member.” 

Meeker led the office in several alcohol-related crime arrests

In addition to his personal troubles with alcohol and motor vehicles, Meeker was also one of the county’s top arresting officers for alcohol and traffic-related offenses, according to arrest data previously obtained by CU-CitizenAccess. During 2019 and 2020, Meeker was the top arresting officer for the following charges: DUI, BAC Over the Limit, Speeding and Driving Under a Suspended License. 

Meeker’s misconduct record shows that, for nearly 15 years, he was disciplined regularly for late or missing paperwork, including in multiple DUI arrests. In addition to the 2011 case in which a deputy found a half-empty bottle of liquor in his squad car, Meeker received three suspensions, two counseling reports, a written warning, and two reprimands for missing paperwork. 

In the most recent investigation, from 2020, Lt. Curt Apperson located 20 cases that Meeker had not written reports or mishandled evidence for, including homicides, police shootings, assaults, child abuse, domestic battery, and sexual assault cases. For that case, Meeker was suspended without pay for just one day by Sheriff Heuerman.

According to the arrest data, 45% of Meeker’s traffic-related arrests were of Black people, and when only looking at arrests of women, he arrested twice as many Black women as white women. Just 13% of Champaign County residents are Black, per Census data.

How Meeker avoided being fired for so long

Heuerman’s predecessor as sheriff, Dan Walsh, did make an attempt to remove Meeker from CCSO in 2013, records show. After Meeker taught a training course on field sobriety tests for the East Central Illinois Mobile Law Enforcement Training Team, Walsh’s administration interpreted that action as a voluntary resignation. 

A provision in the FOP contract states that the sheriff must give express permission for employees to work second jobs, and without it, accepting outside work is equivalent to tendering resignation. 

Even though Meeker had gone against express directions from a lieutenant to not work secondary employment during a medical leave of absence, Meeker taught the course regardless. After Walsh notified Meeker that he accepted his resignation, Meeker filed a grievance to appeal the action, which Walsh denied. 

“To claim that he did not intend to resign is somewhat akin to throwing a brick at a glass window and claiming there was no intent to break a window, only to practice throwing,” Walsh wrote. “If Meeker truly did not know that accepting outside employment without permission was also a resignation, his ignorance was self-imposed, or self-deluding.”

Despite this, after Meeker and his FOP attorney elevated the appeal to arbitration, Meeker and CCSO entered into a settlement agreement that reinstated him into his previous position after a ten-day suspension.

Meeker’s most recent disciplinary case came at the beginning of 2021, when his superiors were made aware of a TikTok account on which he posted bodycam and cell phone videos from his response to the scene of crimes (including a DUI) and from interrogations occurring at the sheriff’s office. 

As a punishment, Meeker was removed from his specialty assignments to the county’s controversial METRO SWAT team and a new Special Enforcement Team, meant to emulate big-city “hotspot” policing by “saturating” areas with high numbers of reported shootings with increased patrols. 

Heuerman wrote that this was “due to multiple incidents based on poor or questionable decision making,” but decided to keep Meeker’s rank as a sergeant supervising other officers.

The previous summer, during the early throes of the COVID pandemic, Lt. Dave Sherrick received a complaint from a woman who alleged that Meeker broke her door and forced her to go to the hospital against her will, after responding to a report that she was suicidal. The woman told Shaw that she wanted the sheriff’s office to pay for her ambulance ride that Meeker forced her to go on and her door that he broke, and said that he “was just being a dick.” 

The woman never filled out an official complaint form, and it doesn’t appear that the office pursued the complaint beyond that. There’s no indication that the office ever paid for the woman’s broken door or ambulance bill. 

Bodycam video shows a tense negotiation between officers and the woman, who insisted that she did not make the call to a suicide hotline that prompted police to respond, and did not even have her phone on her. The officers repeatedly demanded that she exit her house, and after a few minutes, Meeker told her that he would be pinging her phone. At that point, the woman confirmed it was her phone but still refused to exit her house. 

When she began to close her door, Meeker, who was unmasked, grabbed the handle of the storm door and forced it open. He and another officer pulled the woman, who was not wearing pants, out onto her porch. An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter and took the woman, who was still protesting, to OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center in Urbana. 

A deputy filled out an Illinois State Police Clear and Present Danger form, which is used to report gun owners who pose a danger to themselves or others. It’s not clear why this was done, as reports indicate that officers did not know whether the woman had a Firearm Owners Identification Card.

The officers’ actions seem to contradict accepted police best-practices for such cases. The International Association of Chiefs of Police’s model policy instructs that “Where violence or destructive acts have not occurred, avoid physical contact, and take time to assess the situation.” Even consultants with the Force Science Institute, which has come under fire for what critics say are pseudoscientific studies that provide legal cover for officers who use excessive force, advise that “the best response may be not to engage and to withdraw” when subjects are not posing an active threat to themselves or others, as seems to be the case here.

The officers’ conduct, and lack of discipline or even investigation into the case, appears to conflict with values articulated by Heuerman about avoiding police contacts with people experiencing mental crises when he first ran for sheriff in 2018.

“If a police officer deals with the mentally ill out on the street, they have two options: take him to the emergency room or take him to jail if they’ve committed an offense,” he said in an interview with WILL. “At the emergency room, they might be able to solve the problem temporarily, but they don’t have the resources to really treat the mental illness that’s occurring… And we at the jail, we can identify mental illness. We can watch them a little bit extra. But we don’t have the facilities [or] the personnel to really address mental illness in the jail,” he continued. 

“So we have to collaborate with… the hospitals, not necessarily the emergency room, but the hospitals in general to try to find a good alternative for mentally ill, even if they’ve committed a crime.”

However, it wouldn’t be until January 2021, six months after Meeker broke the woman’s door in response to a mental health concern to bring her to the hospital against her will, that Heuerman announced plans to hire CCSO’s first social worker.

Meeker was allowed to retire in “good standing” after guilty plea deal

After initially pleading Not Guilty during his arraignment in September, Meeker pleaded guilty to a sole count of DUI after his attorney, Mark Lipton, reached a plea deal with prosecutor Kate Kurtz of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s Office. Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz sought an outside prosecutor because of Meeker’s status as a county employee and potential witness in criminal cases, according to a report in the News-Gazette.

He was sentenced to two years of court supervision, during which he is prohibited from drinking. If he successfully completes the supervision, the conviction will never enter into his criminal record. Lipton, his attorney, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did Meeker respond to a voicemail and email sent to contact information in his name.

While Meeker no longer works for the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office, he still holds an Illinois police certification. However, he may face later disciplinary action from the Illinois Law Enforcement Standards and Training Board (ILETSB), which certifies police officers. It recently received the power to decertify an officer for “unprofessional, unethical, deceptive, or deleterious” conduct. A DUI is grounds for immediate decertification in some states, but Illinois is not one of them. ILETSB’s new decertification power takes effect in January.

Despite support for substance abuse prevention by police executives being identified as a crucial part of successful implementation of prevention programs by a federally-funded 2016 study, there doesn’t seem to be a robust employee assistance program at CCSO.

The employee assistance portion of CCSO’s Drug and Alcohol-Free Workplace policy only reads that Heuerman “encourages” employees who feel they have a problem to contact their supervisor or the county’s insurance specialist for assistance, and that the county will refer them to a covered provider. It takes care to note that employees will be required to cover any costs beyond what insurance would cover, and that employees won’t be disciplined for utilizing the program “before detection” — but violations of the policy “thereafter” would be punished. 

The policy appears to meet just the bare minimum standards set by the federal government for recipients of federal grants, such as CCSO.

There have been few studies of police use of employee assistance programs. However, a 2006 article by a Massachusetts police chief and training academy instructor encouraged departments to offer peer support programs as part of their employee assistance, and stressed that it is “incumbent” on police departments to “offer any and all legitimate methods” to combat the high levels of stress and increased rates of substance abuse that law enforcement officers face.

Police departments and officers should avoid serving alcohol at police events and refrain from holding social events at bars or other places that serve alcohol, a 2018 article from American Addiction Centers recommends.

Sam Stecklow, Invisible Institute

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