Worst of the Month–March 2017

For the worst of March, we look to the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department scandal that has finally come to a close. Now-former Sheriff Lee Baca was found guilty of obstruction of justice for trying to hide various civil rights violations that were happening at the jail and within his department. Ten other officers, including Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, were convicted and sentenced to prison terms for beatings of inmates, general jail conditions, and hiding information from the federal government.

Before this scandal came to light several years ago, other LASD deputies were tried and convicted for sexually abusing inmates and other civil rights violations.

While some officers we cover are certainly bad apples, some departments create and maintain cultures of impunity for abusive officers. This allows misbehavior to become commonplace and even an integral part of how a department manages itself. This is a sad chapter in LASD’s history and hopefully the department can move on and regain the trust of the community it serves.

Worst of the Month — February

So for February, we’ve selected Pima County, Arizona for the conduct of (the now former) Sheriff Christopher Radtke and the very peculiar leniency shown to him by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Federal prosecutors charged Radtke with several felonies for money laundering and theft.  According to the newspaper accounts, Radtke admitted that for years he made it appear as if his office was donating seized cash and assets from criminal suspects to a sheriff’s auxiliary fund when that wasn’t the case at all.

Ordinary citizens go to prison for embezzlement, but not Radtke.  No prison time and a very generous pension.

Here’s an excerpt from one report:

The plea bargain dismisses all felonies, with Radtke admitting to three misdemeanor theft counts. He agreed to not seek employment as a law-enforcement officer or with Pima County government. In return, prosecutors will request one year of probation without incarceration and will not prosecute Radtke for other offenses.

The deal allows Radtke to receive an $82,800 annual pension from the state Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and a one-time $505,000 payment from the system’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan, according to the retirement system’s records. Within six years, Radtke will receive more than $1 million in state retirement benefits.

Had Radtke been convicted of any of the felony charges against him, he would have been required by law to forfeit his state pension because the crime was committed in the course of his role as a public official for a government employer.

The plea was accepted by Magistrate Judge Eric Markovich. Sentencing is scheduled for April 7 in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

Remarkable.

Worst of the Month — December

For December we’ve selected two former police officers from East Point, Georgia, who were found guilty of criminal charges last month in relation to the killing of Gregory Towns.

Here’s the background: Two police officers, Marcus Eberhart and Howard Weems, were responding to a domestic disturbance call.  When they arrived on the scene, Gregory Towns tried to flee on foot.  The police caught him and placed him in handcuffs.  When the officers ordered Towns to stand up and walk to the police car, he said he was exhausted and too tired to walk.  Frustrated, the police responded by tasing Towns so that he would comply with their commands.  Towns was tased several times and he died.

At their criminal trial, the officers told the jury, via their legal counsel, that Towns died from an illness unrelated to the tasing, but if they did not believe that, the jury should understand that the tasing was the only way to get Towns to the police car.

Worst of the Month — November

So for November, we’ve selected the Albuquerque Police Department, (APD) which is now under investigation, again, for misconduct.

Here’s the background.  After numerous complaints from community leaders, the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation of the APD.  In April 2014, the DOJ announced its finding that there was indeed a pattern of excessive force by the APD.  Police officials promised to change and improve.

Shortly thereafter, an APD officer shot and killed 19 yr old Mary Hawkes.  It looks like Hawkes stole a car and the police were trying to catch her.  The police said she was a threat and so deadly force was necessary.  Hawkes’ family sued the city for excessive force.  Prior to trial, lawyers asked to see any police body camera footage from the incident.

Now we come to the latest news reports of APD misconduct.  Reynaldo Chavez was an employee of the City of Albuquerque and his job was handling records requests.  Chavez says he was aware that the police department had a peculiar policy regarding police body camera footage.  When the footage helped the police, it was released to the public.  When the footage hurt the police, such as showing excessive force, the footage was altered or destroyed.  In other words, the APD tampered with evidence, which is a crime.

Chavez reportedly turned over incriminating body camera footage to the lawyers representing the Hawkes family.  Chavez then lost his job and he is now fighting to get his job back because he says he was punished for doing what he was legally supposed to do.

The APD has denied any wrongdoing, but the state attorney general has seen enough to launch another investigation into APD practices.

Worst of the Month — October

For October, we’ve selected the City of Minneapolis for its handling of an excessive force complaint against Officer Blayne Lehner.

Here’s the background: Lehner and his partner respond to domestic disturbance call at an apartment building where they find two women arguing with one another.   According to the news reports, the encounter was captured on video.  The owner of the apartment building was so disturbed by what he saw–Lehner pushing one of the women without cause–that he filed a complaint with the department.

Later, Police Chief Janee Harteau agrees that Lehner’s conduct was unacceptable.  The Chief terminates Lehner’s employment with the police department.

Only now a labor arbitrator has overturned that employment decision and has ordered the city to reinstate Lehner along with compensation for the time he has been off the force.

News reports also show that Lehner has been the subject of previous complaints and lawsuits:

City records show that since 2000, more than 30 complaint investigations have been opened against Lehner. The vast majority of investigations were closed with no discipline. One case from 2014 with the Office of Police Conduct Review is still open. Records show Lehner was suspended twice in 2013. However, the reasons for the discipline were not listed. Lehner was also issued two letters of reprimand in 2012.

In 2015, Lehner was sued by a man who claimed the officer kicked him in the face, breaking a few of his teeth and causing him to briefly lose consciousness. In a rare move, the city decided not to defend Lehner. However, the city later settled the case for $360,000.

Worst of the Month — September

For September, we have selected the Connecticut State Troopers who were caught on tape harassing a protester and fabricating charges against him.

According to news reports, Michael Picard was protesting near a DUI checkpoint.  He had his cell phone camera out and was recording the scene.  When a trooper noticed what he was doing, he angrily approached Picard and seized his phone saying it was illegal to record him.  This is when things got interesting.  Unbeknownst to the trooper, Picard’s cell phone was still recording as the trooper went back to his patrol car to confer with his colleagues.  The troopers were anxious to “hit” Picard with some kind of charge, but they became frustrated with their options.  Picard had a firearm, but a valid concealed carry permit.  Picard did record them with his cell phone, but that’s legal too.  What to do?  To “cover their ass,” they decide to fabricate a story that several citizens were complaining about Picard’s supposedly “disruptive actions,” but these “witnesses” did not want to stay on the scene, so the troopers had to take action on their own.

The charges against Picard were quickly dismissed.  The ACLU has now filed a lawsuit on behalf of Picard.

The cell phone recording of the incident can be found here.  Because the phone is evidently sitting on the roof of the patrol car, the value is in what can be heard, not seen. Listen and decide for yourself.

Worst of the Month — August

So for August we have selected the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).  Although the misconduct has been festering for many years, our selection is based upon the investigative findings of the Department of Justice, which were published in a report last month.

Here are a few of those findings:

  • The BPD engages in a pattern or practice of making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;
  • The BPD engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force;
  • The BPD engages in a pattern or practice of retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected speech;
  • The BPD has allowed violations of policy to go unaddressed even when they are widespread or involve serious misconduct;
  • The BPD has failed to take action against offenders known to engage in repeated misconduct.

Because the problems run deep, it would be a mistake to focus all of our attention on the police department itself.  The political establishment of Baltimore knew there were problems, but failed to address them.  It remains to be seen whether the reform rhetoric we have been hearing will be followed by real action.

Worst of the Month — July

So for July we’ve chosen the case from Berrien County, Tennessee where the former sheriff pled guilty to beating up prisoners in-custody.  These prisoners were in handcuffs and were not resisting or threatening anyone.  Here’s an excerpt from the local news:

According to Heath’s guilty plea, on Jan. 12, 2012, Heath and deputies from the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office were engaged in a foot chase of an individual identified only as M.V., who had been banned from traveling through the county. During the chase, Heath saw M.V. and called out to him, “You better not run or I will beat your a**,” or words to that effect, according to the justice department. M.V. reportedly responded by running into a nearby wooded area.

Heath and deputies followed M.V. into the woods, where a deputy eventually saw M.V. and arrested him without incident. When a deputy reported that M.V. was in custody, Heath reportedly ordered deputies to wait and hold M.V. in the woods. When Heath arrived, M.V. was lying face down on the ground, with his hands handcuffed behind his back and was not resisting arrest, according to the press release.

Heath kicked M.V. in the ribs, punched him in the head with a closed fist multiple times and forcefully kneed him in the ribs multiple times, causing M.V. to experience pain and have difficulty breathing, according to the justice department.

Read the whole thing.  The former sheriff, Anthony Heath, is facing two counts of violating civil rights under the color of law.  Each count carries a maximum sentence of ten years, but the actual sentence is expected to be far less.

We are of course aware of several officer-involved shootings last month that received national and international attention.  Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge; Philando Castile was killed in Minnesota;  Paul O’Neal was killed in Chicago; and Charles Kinsey was shot and wounded in North Miami.  The investigations into these incidents are underway and we will, as usual, be posting updates.

Worst of the Month — April

James King was minding his own business when he was confronted by two menacing men.   King didn’t know these men and he wanted to get away from them, but they chased him and beat him up.

Turns out the men were police officers working on a fugitive task force.  They thought King was one of their fugitives, but they were mistaken about that.  They were out of uniform when they confronted King and, according to King’s lawsuit, they did not identify themselves as police officers.  Worried about his own safety, King ran away from them.

One of the officers put King in a chokehold till he lost consciousness.  When King came to, he again feared for his own safety and bit the arm of one of the officers in a gambit to get away from them.  The bite infuriated the officer, who then unleashed a torrent of punches on King’s face and head.

Bystanders were alarmed by what they were witnessing and they called 911.  The responding officer, for his part, told the witnesses to delete the cell phone videos of the incident.  He was worried about the safety of the officers, who had undercover jobs.  They shouldn’t be recorded.

When things settled down, and the police realized their mistake, they decided to arrest King anyway.  He fought back during his arrest–that’s a crime.

Prosecutors evidently agreed that King needed to be punished–so they charged him with three felonies.

King declined to plea bargain and insisted on a jury trial.  The jury acquitted him of all charges.

A civil lawsuit is now pending.   There’s no indication of any discipline for the officers involved.  They’re apparently still out there policing.

Worst of the Month — March

So for the month of March we have selected the scandal plagued Sheriff’s Office in Iberia Parish, Louisiana.

Sheriff Louis Ackal and Lt. Col. Gerald Savoy were indicted last month for criminal civil rights violations.  Eight former deputies have already pled guilty to similar charges.  Hundreds of criminal cases are now being reopened because they could be tainted by corrupt acts.  The now former deputies admit that they lied in various reports, including search warrant applications.

The scope of this scandal is worth repeating: hundreds of cases will have to be reexamined.

Go here for the full story.