Stopping the Abuse

Stopping the Abuse

“We live in a free enterprise system.”

—Metro Police Chief Emmett Turner, Nashville Scene, March 27, 1997

Three years ago, Nashville Scene reporter Willy Stern began an investigation into the Metro Police Department’s off-duty work policies. Specifically, Stern looked at how Metro officers owned and operated private security companies to supplement their own Police Department salaries.

Stern’s report—published March 27, 1997—uncovered widespread abuses. He showed how the off-duty system was rife with conflict of interest, misuse of public money, favoritism, and abuse of power. Police officers were spending work time running their own companies. And the police chief, Emmett Turner, really didn’t care. After all, he said, “We live in a free enterprise system.”

What that story taught us was this: The Metro Nashville Police Department is not like most other latter-20th-century corporate organizations, which abide by ethical standards of internal management. Nor does it encourage civil relations with the inquiring public. On a timeline of civilization, the Metro Police Department has just emerged from the Dark Ages.

We’ll be the first to acknowledge it’s not as bad as it used to be. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to be promoted to captain in the police department, you had to come up with a sack full of $5,000 in cash to give to someone. Numbers houses operated down the street from police headquarters, and the police chief, named “Hang ’Em High” Joe Casey, spent his time railing about how he thought public hangings on the courthouse square were a bright idea.

This, dear reader, is the system that has produced our current police chief, who by all accounts is an honest man. Turner grew up through the ranks. So did numerous other senior officers. Which brings us to the latest round of haphazard and irresponsible conduct by our men in blue, spelled out in a two-part series recently penned by the same Scene reporter, Willy Stern (“Above the Law,” Oct. 21 and 28, 1999).

Stern revealed how private security guards from a company called Detection Services, which employed more than 40 moonlighting cops, beat and robbed Hispanics living in apartment complexes the company was hired to patrol. (At least one cop participated in the abuse; others apparently knew of it but didn’t report it.) Stern also revealed how policemen regularly turned over confidential department information on Nashvillians to the company, and did work for the company on Metro time. Additionally, Stern uncovered that three investigations that were launched into the company were handled by the Police Department’s Internal Security Division. Those investigations never got anywhere. After all, two members of Internal Security, including its commander, were on the private security firm’s payroll.

As if matters could be any worse, Stern uncovered this: Detection Services folded earlier this year, but a police sergeant who runs the city’s auto theft department simply started a new company and took over the company’s largest contract. The sergeant tried to hide the ownership of the company by putting it in his daughter’s name. Police Department policy prohibits any officer from having a “direct or indirect” interest in a private security company that hires off-duty cops. This sergeant is clearly in deep trouble.

When Stern’s stories appeared, the proverbial mud pie hit the city fan. Mayor Bill Purcell appropriately appointed a committee under the direction of city attorney Karl Dean to open up lines of communication with the city’s Hispanic community. But something else happened last week: the police chief announced the formation of an investigative body that would look into the problems raised in the Scene stories. And Turner said the investigation would be run out of...the Metro Police Department. A police officer, Capt. Steve Anderson, will oversee the investigation. His team will include two other cops, and two investigators from the Metro District Attorney’s office.

Skeptical? Doubtful? Anxious? Concerned?

We were all of the above.

After all, this is the same Metro Police Department that already has investigated the company three times without finding wrongdoing. This is the same Metro Police Department whose leader, Emmett Turner, twiddled his fingers while off-duty security firms have run rampant in his department, not just for a few months, but for several years. This is the same Metro Police Department that had 40 cops moonlighting for a company that was beating the tar out of a group of disenfranchised citizens—spraying mace in their eyes, kicking them in the ribs, stealing thousands of their dollars, towing their cars for no reason—and we are to believe that a department that is allowed to careen this far out of control can produce an investigation that can get to the bottom of all this?

Allow us, for a moment, to digress on an unrelated matter. It is nonetheless instructive.

About five weeks ago, the Scene learned that a local beer distributor had given the police department around 100 cases of beer to use at charity events. Much of the beer ended up in the garage of a police officer named Archie Spain. Spain then sold the beer. Without spelling out the laws Spain may have broken, we can safely advise you that what he did is a no-no.

When we notified Chief Turner of what we had found, and asked Turner what he planned to do about it, Turner had his spokesman call us. If we had any problem with his officer’s behavior, we were told to file a formal complaint. Turner said he wasn’t going to do anything about it until we began the process of filing the paperwork. Six days later, maybe when a hammer hit Turner in the head, he put out a press release amending his statement, saying he was looking into the matter.

Upon reflection, what this little episode told us was this: There is reason to doubt that Turner can investigate wrongdoing in his department. There is reason to doubt he can investigate his own men. There is reason to believe he operates a closed-up shop that doesn’t encourage the public to identify possible wrongdoing in his department. For if Nashville must rely on its weekly newspaper, rather than its police chief, to take action against police officers who are breaking laws, then this city has real problems.

Two weeks after Stern’s first report of abuses of Hispanics hit the streets, this newspaper’s assessment of where the investigation stands might surprise some. So far, we’re relatively pleased.

We were disappointed when the investigative task force did not include outside investigators in its mix. To be certain, investigators from the District Attorney’s office were included in the investigating task force. In our judgment, the investigation was still being run out of the police department, with all that implied.

But the process appears to be working on some levels. Having uncovered potential civil rights violations, the task force has this week appropriately requested that the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI investigate the matter. That is firepower. However, the task force still will investigate all of the other potential criminal offenses without outside help.

Many have called for an outside team to investigate the Police Department. Numerous Hispanics and policemen have told the Scene they will not talk to any Metro investigator because they fear retaliation. Bob Lynch, a former federal prosecutor living in Nashville, said, “To this day, I’ve never seen bureaucrats do what they are supposed to do when called on to investigate themselves.” Gary Sykes, director of the Southwestern Law Enforcement Center in Dallas, said, “There have clearly been questions raised about the ability of the Nashville Police Department to police itself. At this point, you would want to reassure the public by having an outside agency look into matters.”

Which is precisely why having the involvement of the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI—even in a limited role—is a step in the right direction.

Lest we get bogged down in matters of investigations and jurisdictions, let us consider for a moment what this story is all about. Ultimately, this is the tragic saga of criminal abuses waged against Hispanics, many of whom were illegal aliens. The Hispanics feared going to the law to protest their treatment, because they either didn’t trust the system, or they didn’t want to be deported. Unfortunately, the tale is not a new one. In fact, it is part of the dark side of the American experience.

Stories of immigration are often tragic ones. The Irish, Jews, African Americans, and the myriad others who have come here have often faced their own unique forms of abuse. The silver lining in their experiences, however, is that the Constitution often triumphs, and equal treatment under the law prevails.

In the days since the Scene’s report appeared, the near-daily coverage on the part of Nashville’s television stations and The Tennessean—in addition to the swift reaction on the part of numerous public officials—has made plain the fact that our community can be an open and concerned one.

If the investigative task force—in combination with the U.S. Attorney’s office—does get to the bottom of all this, then a great good will have been done. At various times, and for valid reasons, we have not trusted the Police Department’s involvement in this whole investigation.

Today, however, we say this: So far, so good.


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