Longtime Champaign officer recalls colleague's death

Longtime Champaign officer recalls colleague's death

CHAMPAIGN — As a lieutenant on the midnight shift Nov. 25, 1967, J.O. Jones didn't recognize the voice on the police radio.

"A voice came on and said, 'You got trouble out on West Church. You better get out here.' Everybody was trying to figure out who was talking on the radio," said the retired Champaign police chief.

Jones was patroling the University of Illinois campus about 1 a.m. that day when a Mahomet man found Officer Robert Tatman on the ground outside his squad car, mortally wounded. The passerby reached into Tatman's squad car and used the radio to call for help.

Jones was Tatman's supervisor and rushed to what was then the west edge of Champaign: Church Street just west of Mattis Avenue.

"Something I didn't want to see" was what the veteran officer saw.

The 27-year-old Tatman, a husband and father of four, had been shot with his own service weapon, which lay near his body. His killer or killers were never found.

Friday (May 17), Jones will take part in honoring the fallen colleague he knew and another he did not know personally, at a ceremony in West Side Park.

The other officer, Thomas Dodsworth, was killed 100 years ago as he tried to arrest a bootlegger in north Champaign. Champaign squad cars are sporting decals with Dodsworth's badge number and the July 6, 1913, date of his death to mark the anniversary of his passing.

Now 80 and living in Kissimmee, Fla., Jones returns to Champaign periodically to visit with a daughter who lives in Urbana and a few friends who are still around. He retired from the department in May 1983 as chief of police, a position he held only about nine months following the resignation of Police Chief Bill Dye.

Jones reminisced with The News-Gazette earlier this week in a training room at the Champaign Police Department building, where memorabilia from the department's past is displayed. Several of the pieces — patches, badges, leg irons, handcuffs, a radio license, a sand painting of the seal of the FBI National Academy — are from Jones, and most come with a story.

Jones started with the department in December 1955, not long after he got out of the Navy, having served in Korea. He was already married to his high school sweetheart, Lee Ann Gaither, and they had the first of their three daughters.

He had just one interview with a male city council member before being hired. He was living with his in-laws in Mahomet and despite a horrible snowstorm, made it to the interview. Six days later, on Dec. 16, 1955, he started as a patrol officer. By the end of his career, he had worked under the supervision of four different chiefs.

The following summer there was a long list of officers on a bulletin board who were interested in attending the first course to be offered at the newly formed Police Training Institute at the UI. The rookie Jones didn't bother to sign up, figuring he'd be passed over. For reasons not clear to him, names kept getting crossed off the list, so he put his on and was one of three men chosen to attend. It was the first of many lessons learned on the job.

"I had to work nights and go to school during the day," he said, explaining why the list got short.

For 10 weeks, he went to PTI class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., then went home to sleep a few hours, then to work from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

"It was good for me. Everything I learned in that school I would use at one time or another," said Jones, a member of the first graduating class.

Jones worked his way up to sergeant, lieutenant and captain. Almost his entire career in patrol was spent on nights, he said.

"Every time I made a promotion, I got sent back to nights. I couldn't see in the daylight," laughed the man who still wears sunglasses almost constantly because of his sensitivity to bright light.

As the lieutenant on the shift when Tatman was killed, Jones said "the very next night on my shift you couldn't get out of the car unless I knew where you were." Prior to the tragedy, there weren't many rules about radioing in such information. "When I was on nights in the car, sometimes I would say where I was. Sometimes i didn't."

When he was promoted to captain over patrol in 1973, he made that practice standard for all officers. It remains a basic tenet of officer safety.

Other departmental initiatives Jones had a hand in launching included team policing; the Major Case Squad — a team of detectives from area department who worked jointly on murders; the department's first tactical unit called "CERT" for Civil Emergency Response Team "because that sounded nicer than SWAT"; and one that continues to rankle speeding motorists — STEP, the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program.

Jones has now been retired longer than he worked. He left before the police department moved from the City Building at 102 N. Neil St. a few blocks east to its current location at 82 E. University Ave.

He and his late wife, who worked as a programmer at Carle Foundation Hospital, left their respective jobs at the same time in 1983 and took a four-month trip through the West in a travel trailer. Not long after that, they settled in Florida, where he's never worked for pay again.

His best time during his law enforcement career?

"As a sergeant. I was out on the street and I had people below me and people above me. They you make chief, there's nobody above you. It's lonely."


Editor's note: Dodsworth and Tatman will be remembered in a ceremony at 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Police Memorial at West Side Park in Champaign. Then at noon, a police vehicle processional will travel to the Champaign County Courthouse in downtown Urbana for a countywide ceremony honoring fallen officers in Champaign County and the state of Illinois.

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