They killed, raped, beat, stole and lied. They abused their wives and girlfriends, and aided drug dealers and other criminals. They submitted fraudulent reports, skimmed money from their budgets and committed perjury to cover up their misdeeds. And they were all sworn to uphold the law.
Allegations of police misconduct are nothing new, of course, and the charges against sworn police personnel from street officers to chiefs in 1996 differed from past revelations largely just in terms of their specifics. As in the past, accusations ranged from violating departmental directives and procedures, to the most egregious and horrifying criminal acts such as drug-related corruption, brutality and murder.
In the worst cases, the acts of rogue police officers brought disgrace and dishonor to the badge and threatened to taint the entire profession.
There were also numerous examples of law enforcement agencies taking positive action in response to misconduct by making sweeping changes and taking steps to repair damage to the agency’s integrity and image. Corruption scandals, of course, often seem magnified as the size of an agency increases, and 1996 provided no exception, as a number of the nation’s largest police departments dealt with the fallout of ongoing corruption scandals.
As part of an agreement reached in September to settle lawsuits filed by dozens of victims of police corruption and racial bias, the City of Philadelphia will create a 15-member task force to review all Police Department policies and procedures, hire an integrity and accountability officer to ensure that police ethics are maintained and implement new procedures to identify officers at risk for misconduct. The agreement was reached just one day before lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were to go to court to file lawsuits brought by victims of six corrupt and brutal officers assigned to the Police Department’s 39th District, all of whom are now serving long terms in Federal prisons for a variety of crimes.
The scandal, in which the officers were accused of crimes ranging from beating suspects and making false arrests to planting drugs on innocent citizens and committing perjury on the witness stand to cover up their acts and those of their colleagues, broke last year. The incidents, most of which occurred between 1988 and 1991, prompted the review of nearly 1,500 arrests made by the officers, and hundred of convictions already have been overturned.
Officers in other jurisdictions also succumbed to the lure of drug-related corruption. Three Detroit police officers and one former officer were named in a Federal indictment handed down in May that accused them of being key players in a Texas-to-Michigan cocaine-smuggling ring. The officers allegedly used squad cars and police-issued weapons to carry out their activities, some of which occurred while they were on duty. Police Chief Isaiah McKinnon wasted no time in condemning the officers, saying “there is no room in the department for those who show contempt for the badge, contempt for the people they work with and, most of all, contempt for the community in which they live.”
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, the fallout continued from an FBI sting in 1994 that netted several officers who had agreed to transport and guard shipments of cocaine. The trials of several of the accused began this fall, with one of the key players in the scandal, former officer Len Davis, due to testify against former colleagues. Davis was sentenced to death earlier this year for arranging the murder of a woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him.
The taint of scandal can be utterly non-discriminatory when it comes to either agency size or the rank of the officers involved, as some cities discovered. Residents of Ford Heights, Ill., barely contained their glee at the news that six current and former police officers had finally been indicted for allegedly taking bribes to look the other way as more than 20 drug dealers conducted a brisk, brazen business in the small, impoverished town about 30 miles south of Chicago. The residents’ palpable sense of relief was a long time coming, as many said they had been aware of corruption on the force for years.
Newark, N.J., Police Director William Celester, a former Boston police official who assumed office in 1991, was forced out of office in June after being named in a wide-ranging indictment charging him with several counts of malfeasance, including mail and wire fraud, tax fraud, accepting illegal gratuities, making a false statement and forging documents. In a plea bargain, Celester pleaded guilty in July to using $29,500 from a police account to pay for vacations, airline tickets, gifts for girlfriends and other personal expenses which he agreed to repay. He later claimed that he was just following department tradition in skimming the account. A Federal judge was unmoved, sentencing Celester to two years in prison.
In Indianapolis, it wasn’t wrongdoing on the police chief’s part but on the part of officers under his command that led to the resignation Sept. 16 of Donald Christ, who stepped down after 16 members of an elite police unit were accused of using racial slurs, harassing women and starting a drunken brawl. Christ, a 24-year IPD veteran, said he was leaving because he believed “it was in the best interest of the department as well as the city of Indianapolis” to do so. Two officers have been fired, two suspended and three demoted, including two supervisors. Four were indicted in October on criminal charges stemming from the Aug. 27 incident.
In recent years, law enforcement increasingly has adopted no-nonsense arrest policies against perpetrators of domestic violence. But emerging evidence shows that no one is immune to the problem, including those sworn to uphold the law, leading police officials to start coming to grips with batterers in their ranks.
The case of a twice-honored Washington, D.C., Police Officer of the Year, who was convicted in March of beating his fiancée, was a factor in a crackdown on domestic abusers announced by District officials. U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said that a new squad of prosecutors would be created to deal exclusively with domestic violence cases part of a broader strategy that calls for the creation of specialized units of police officers, counselors and judges who will pursue cases from arrest to resolution.
The Detroit Police Department announced a similar proposal, including the deployment of a 50-member homicide-reduction task force charged with investigating every case reported to police, as well as a sophisticated effort to identify and provide assistance to officers who may be having problems at home themselves. The agency’s Risk Management and Internal Controls divisions, which maintain records on officer performance, will analyze information to determine which officers might be at risk for spouse abuse.
The problem of domestic violence perpetrated by police officers is likely to get even more attention in the months ahead, as agencies wrestle with the ramifications of a new Federal law that bars anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from possessing a handgun.
Like domestic violence, sexual misconduct is an ongoing problem for police officers, whether in the form of on-duty consensual sex in a patrol car, granting leniency in exchange for sex, making inappropriate comments to female officers, or using the authority of the badge to force sexual favors from suspects. Several such incidents involving Minnesota police officers were a driving force behind a state mandate that required all law enforcement agencies to adopt a uniform code of conduct. To help agencies comply, the state Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training developed an eight-page model policy on conduct unbecoming an officer.
And, finally, relief is just around the corner for some officers who say they are frequently the subject of false, vengeful complaints filed by suspects claims that, for better or for worse, often become permanent part of their personnel records. The California Legislature took action on the issue, approving, after months of debate, a law under which frivolous complaints will no longer be retained in police personnel files. Gov. Pete Wilson signed the House version of the bill Sept. 30, rejecting a Senate version that would have barred disciplinary action against public safety officers for misconduct allegations unless the complaints are investigated within a year of the alleged incident.