Editorial Preface: We at The Observer believe it is important that our readers see the truth in the world, no matter how difficult, painful and awful it may be. In the case of our story about Aaron Nichols, the fired Springfield police officer, we have made the editorial choice to include graphic content, in the form of offensive and bigoted language, so we can tell the true story of what is happening here in the Springfield community. We understand some of our readers may not wish to see this graphic content, and for some, it may even be a trigger. For this reason, we want to preface this story with a trigger warning of graphic content in some of the language quoted, in an effort to tell the truth and provide accountability for someone who is charged with keeping this community safe.
On Friday, April 1, a story broke about former Springfield Police Officer Aaron P. Nichols who was placed on unpaid administrative leave for the discovery of racist online statements. Joshua Stuenkel, the Deputy Chief of Criminal Investigations for the Springfield Police Department, says that the department was made aware of the statements through an independent information gathering effort by a group called the Anonymous Comrades Collective. During a statement by Chief of Police Kenneth Scarlette, it was announced that Nichols was then placed on unpaid administrative leave – something that the Police Union did not oppose. The department announced that Nichols tenured his resignation on April 5. Though the disgraced former officer has turned over his badge and been officially relieved of police duties, Deputy Chief Stuenkel says the current investigation will continue. When asked if there was an indicated pattern of racial bias in Nichols’ police work, Stuenkel indicated that it was one of the many things that were being investigated. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request has been submitted for the information on whether Nichols has had complaints filed against him or if he was reprimanded for misconduct prior to the announcement on April 1.
The Springfield Police Department has also submitted a report to the Illinois Training and Standards Board which ensures that other law enforcement agencies in the state of Illinois are aware of the nature of his conduct. However, it should be noted that neither one of these things guarantees that Nichols will not find a job in another Illinois city or township. Deputy Stuenkel states that while Nichols is not able to re-join the Springfield Police Department, it is entirely possible that he could find work with another department. The de-certification by the Illinois Training and Standards Board is the only thing that would prevent him from having an opportunity to continue his career in law enforcement.
Several community leaders have spoken out against the former officer for a myriad of racist, homophobic and antisemitic statements that were posted under a variety of social media usernames. The use of several different burner accounts indicates that officer Nichols was aware that what he was doing would result in disciplinary action. It was reported that Nichols did not dispute the department’s findings when he resigned ahead of a meeting with internal investigators. While the racist statements are disappointing, they are unfortunately not surprising. The discovery of his statements and subsequent removal from duty has divided many in the community, with some saying that the situation was over the moment that he resigned. Others in the community have more questions than answers as they struggle to comprehend how something like this could have gone undetected for so long. There are archives available with hundreds of derogatory posts to look through, but there are a few that stand out as especially shocking and alarming.
“I despise the government and have for nearly 3 decades. The best place I can possibly be is inside the beast. I’ve done a lot of good in my careers.” – Posted on Gab 09/08/2021
According to the Illinois Training and Standards Board records, Nichols was hired in June 2004 by the SPD. The opportunity to become a police officer is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for many, and Nichols would have taken the oath to protect and serve the city of Springfield shortly before the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. For many Americans, the fresh images of first responders bravely answering the call to serve – many of them knowing that it would be the last call they would ever take – still played fresh in their minds. Nichols accepted the role of someone the public would be able to trust. Nichols claimed to have “done a lot of good” in his career which suggests actions that would fall in the category of ‘misconduct’ while being a part of the Springfield Police Department and including his tenure in the Air Force and later with the Illinois National Guard.
Aaron Nichols was not shy when it came to showing his feeling about the citizens of Springfield experiencing homelessness. Instead of trying to find ways to assist some of the most vulnerable people in our city, Aaron Nichols took pleasure in bullying the citizens of Springfield on at least one occasion as he took to Twitter to describe going to a Taco Bell and dumping out a shopping cart containing the personal belongings of a person experiencing homelessness. The tweet was in response to one posted by another user (possibly a police officer themselves) who said they would “rather be on patrol stopping crime and taking homeless people’s shopping carts back to Target.” Nichols followed up by saying that he took a homeless woman’s cart back to “the Babies R’ Us she appropriated it from” while tagging both brand accounts in his tweet. This may cause some to question what the current rules of engagement are when the SPD encounters a situation where someone may be experiencing homelessness or other forms of duress such as a mental health crisis.
“I’m not joking when I say this:
Call the police for EVERYTHING.
(Don’t put yourself in a trick bag. No lying, no false reports. Hell, be anonymous.)
Do I really want more calls for service? Nope.
Do I want the system to be absolutely overwhelmed? Yep.”
– Posted to Twitter on January 5, 2021
In January 2021, Nichols suggested that people call the police as often as they can for any reason possible. Dated just one day before rioters stormed the Capitol building in Washington D.C., Nichols wanted the system to be “absolutely overwhelmed” with calls that would require more work for the Springfield police officers he served alongside. While he himself still served as a police officer, Nichols was okay with straining police resources and creating more work for his fellow officers which would in turn make for longer response times to calls. This could lead to an increase in crime rates and obvious frustration for the men and women and uniforms.
Former officer Nichols stated that he was not willing to give up his way of life which included patrolling the west side of Springfield – a relatively peaceful beat to walk. Officer Nichols resigned four days after news of his online persona was made public. Officer Nichols willingly left behind a yearly salary of $85,302 as the department launched an investigation of his actions. The proclamation that he would rather “die in a pile of brass” reads as a statement of a self-made martyr, in our opinion. The sad irony is that the disgraced officer has seen his life disrupted by his own words. Nichols, a former member of the United States military, masqueraded as a public servant while harboring hateful thoughts and feelings while feeling comfortable enough to write about them on a public forum. His words proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the years that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Americans reflected in a number of ways. Some of those ways over the years have been less than peaceful with rhetoric that can sometimes come off as aggressive with phrases like “Never Forget” and constant coverage of the horrific events that took place on that day. On September 11, 2021 – just 18 days after stating that he would rather die in a pile of brass – Nichols posted the ominous message. Without context, it is hard to know for certain what Nichols was trying to articulate or allude to, but on the anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil could raise a few eyebrows. Nichols posted the statement to Gab Social which has a very relaxed policy when it comes to inflammatory language. This is something that has come under scrutiny before as a user of Gab and suspect in a deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue used the site to post antisemitic messages before turning words to violence.
The late legend of poetry Maya Angelou was honored with a special quarter pressed with her likeness. Many in the African-American community saw it as an honor while others saw the accolade as performative. Officer Nichols saw it as the best time to stamp “14/88” onto every quarter that featured Angelou that he came across. ‘14/88’ has a special meaning to white supremacists and the saying was coined by someone who was given a 190-year sentence for the murder of Alan Berg, a Jewish radio talk show host.
One of the more alarming statements made by former officer Nichols was the repeated declaration of SPD manpower. On several occasions, Nichols spoke of the 200-plus officers that wear a badge and carry a gun as they patrol the streets of Springfield – and on more than one occasion, Nichols implied there are many others who share his sentiment. To what extent is yet to be seen, but the fact remains that Aaron Nichols betrayed his oath, made a mockery of his shield, and has caused significant damage to the public image of police officers wherever they may pledge to protect and serve. Aaron Nichols, who had a clear disdain for the government for close to three decades, accepted the honor that comes with being a proud military veteran while secretly hoping to see the government – and his department – in shambles. The city of Springfield has space to breathe a temporary sigh of relief, take another breath and hold it, in hope that “one bad apple” did not spoil the whole barrel as the investigation continues.