Personal Foul 

How police bent the rules for a Titans player who assaulted his girlfriend

How police bent the rules for a Titans player who assaulted his girlfriend

Prosecutors and victims’ advocates already are outraged by the abrupt transfer of an acclaimed cop, Lt. Mark Wynn, from the Metro Police squad that investigates domestic violence. Coupled with the fact that Wynn’s replacement comes with a checkered past—he once was disciplined for tying a rope around a young black suspect’s neck in an attempt at intimidation—the transfer has brought fears that the department is increasingly uncommitted to combatting domestic violence.

Now there’s more fuel for the controversy. In recent days, the Scene has learned about preferential police treatment afforded a Tennessee Titans player whose arrest for assaulting and inflicting bruises and strangle marks on the body and neck of his girlfriend—also the mother of his child—went conspicuously unreported all season long.

Experts say the bizarre tale that has amazingly escaped media scrutiny reflects highly inappropriate and almost unheard-of police behavior. Here it is:

On June 26 of last year, Titans cornerback Denard Walker, 25, and his then 21-year-old girlfriend, with whom he had a 19-month-old baby, began arguing in his Bellevue-area apartment. According to the police report, Walker didn’t want his girlfriend, Rhonda Lynn Chesser—then a student at Louisiana State University working here for the summer—to be in Nashville. The argument soon escalated.

”When the victim stated something to suspect, he began punching and grabbing her throughout the apartment,“ the police report says. ”The suspect also made several threats throughout that åhe could kill her.’ The victim stated that she did manage to get hold of suspect’s legs to tip him off balance to push him down in defense against him. The suspect also put his hands around victim’s neck and tried to strangle her. After the fight came to a close, suspect told victim to leave and kicked her in the back as she was attempting to exit.“

Walker’s girlfriend left the apartment with bruises on her legs, arms, both sides of her face, and forehead, according to the police report. The officer noted there were strangle marks around the woman’s neck and that their baby was in the apartment during the argument.

On June 28, Walker disputed his girlfriend’s version of events. In a written statement to police, he told them that when ”Rhonda came over, we talked basically about the situation with our son. When she left the house and came back, we continued talking about some past issues. When she came in the house, we continued talking, which led to an argument, where I asked Rhonda to leave. When she didn’t leave, I got angry, where I grabbed her by the arm, escorting her out. She would not leave, where the pushing started to take place. We basically wrestled on the floor, with some punches thrown not to be harmful. During the confrontation, I had marks around my neck with minor scratches.“

Walker’s girlfriend wanted to prosecute, and she did. A few days after calling on police to take an incident report, she signed a sworn affidavit describing the violent argument. On Sunday, July 11, Walker was taken to the Criminal Justice Center by Metro Police Sgt. John Smith and domestic violence detective Tim Sneed to be booked and jailed for the offense. That’s when the extraordinary treatment began.

Sources who were there say that, unlike other offenders, Walker wasn’t placed in the facility’s holding cell with others being arrested—as is typical procedure. Instead, he was allowed to wait outside in the booking area, removed from the seedy elements in the police station.

Walker’s bond was then set at $3,000, but he didn’t have enough cash to make it, and he didn’t want to call on friends or colleagues for help. Matters turned stranger still. Sgt. Smith asked Sneed how much money he had in his pocket. Sneed offered up some cash, and Smith took it and added it to what he had. The total of $325 was offered to Walker, which was then given to the bail bond company that posted Walker’s bond.

The Scene has obtained a copy of a check written by Walker as reimbursement to Smith for the $325. It is dated July 12, the day after Walker was arrested and released. Neither Smith nor Walker returned phone calls to the Scene, but an independent, out-of-town handwriting expert verified that the signature on the check matches Walker’s signature on the arrest warrant.

Ultimately, on Aug. 11, Walker went to court and pleaded guilty to the assault, and he is now serving a one-year supervised probation accompanied by a requirement to attend weekly domestic abuse classes.

Asked about Walker’s case this week, Titans coach Jeff Fisher at first told the Scene, ”It was a domestic situation“ that had been ”settled and handled and blown out of proportion.“ But when he was told that Walker pleaded guilty and had been placed on probation, Fisher then said, ”I was unaware of any of this.“ He added, ”The timing is not good,“ apparently referring to the Titans’ upcoming second-round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. ”We will deal with whatever fallout comes from your story.“

Asked to clarify Fisher’s comments, a team spokesman would not say whether the team knew that Walker had pleaded guilty to assault. ”Our statement is that at this time, we really wish not to comment on this situation.“

Reached in Florida, the victim didn’t want to comment. Meanwhile, the attorney who represented Walker in the case—former Davidson County Public Defender Bill Shulman—and the assistant district attorney who handled the case, Carlton Drumwright, both say the probation and classes were part of a plea-bargain arrangement and appropriate punishment for a first-time offender.

Assuming Walker completes his probationary period without further incident, the assault could be expunged from his record.

Critics point to the police’s kid-glove treatment of Walker leading up to the resolution of the case as new proof of a poorly run and ill-managed Domestic Violence Division.

At the urging of victims’ advocates, and owing in large measure to the strengths Lt. Wynn brought to the job, the office was created six years ago by then-Mayor Phil Bredesen, who said he hoped to curb killings related to domestic violence. Wynn was the unit’s star figure. Having traveled the world training and advising in the area of domestic violence, he has letters of commendation stacked an inch thick in his personnel file. He has been recognized by President Clinton, testified before Congress, and is generally considered a go-to person for such national organizations as the National Victim Center and the National Organization of Victim Assistance.

But he has been criticized and disciplined by superiors—one in particular—for such transgressions as failing to clean out his voice mailbox often enough and being tardy with paperwork. That resulted, at the end of last year, in the transfer of Wynn to a desk job in another division, and his replacement by Lt. Danny A. Driskell. Driskell has been disciplined for, among other breaches, tying a rope around a young black suspect’s neck in 1984 in an attempt to intimidate the suspect and his two cohorts. He later admitted to giving false information to the department’s Internal Security Division during its investigation of the incident.

Word of Wynn’s transfer to the Police Department’s Planning and Research division—which came last month after he filed a hostile work environment grievance against his supervisor—has sparked outrage in victims’ advocacy and prosecutor circles, particularly given the background of his replacement.

Meanwhile, Wynn, who earlier told the Scene he can’t comment on the developments, is taking vacation until he decides whether to accept the transfer or resign. Among others, Andrea Conte, founder of the victim advocacy group You Have the Power, has sharply criticized Wynn’s transfer from the division, describing it as a ”huge loss.“ Mayor Bill Purcell’s office has also been getting a large volume of letters and phone calls about Wynn’s transfer. So far, Purcell’s office is staying out of the controversy.

Wynn’s supervisor, Capt. Shirley Davis, is the official who has filed most of the complaints again Wynn for his apparent organizational weaknesses. Some high-ranking police officials characterize the move as a good decision. They say that just because Wynn has helped earn acclaim for his division, he shouldn’t be excused for not returning calls quickly enough or shuffling papers fast enough. Beyond that, the Domestic Violence Division is viewed critically within the Police Department, and some of Wynn’s colleagues and superiors are said to be jealous of the attention he’s attracted. Prosecutors, on the other hand, say Wynn’s transfer only dilutes the charge of the division to crack down on domestic violence in Nashville.

Meanwhile, the most recent controversy involving Denard Walker’s case has prompted police officials to concede that Sgt. Smith showed ”poor judgment“ in helping Walker gather enough money to post bail.

Police spokesman Don Aaron says the department’s administration learned of the incident only this week, after inquiries made by the Nashville Scene.

”Sgt. Smith says that he loaned Mr. Walker money following his arrest,“ Aaron says. ”That is not technically a violation of our policy. The policy says that an employee should not post bond. Sgt. Smith did not post his bond, did not sign the bond book, did not take responsibility for the man coming to court. However, what he did do is exercise poor judgment.“

Aaron says Assistant Police Chief Robert Russell spoke with Smith Tuesday ”and has counseled him, emphasizing that he used poor judgment and should not have done what he did. Sgt. Smith understands that he used poor judgment.“

Aaron says that as for holding Walker outside of the jail cell after his arrest, ”there is no policy against that.“

Asked whether a police officer should ever help someone post bail after being arrested, Metro Police Capt. Steve Anderson, an attorney and aide to Police Chief Emmett Turner, says that it ”would be stretching the envelope“ and that he would recommend against it. He cites a general order of the Police Department that says ”employees shall not post bond or seek the release of an arrested person except when approved by their supervisor.“

”It would be hard off the top of my head to tell you when that would be appropriate,“ Anderson says. ”I guess if a guy wanted to bail his brother out of jail and I was his supervisor I would say, ågo ahead.’ “

Police experts say behavior such as Smith’s shouldn’t be tolerated. ”That doesn’t seem appropriate to me at all,“ says Patrick Murphy, former commissioner of the New York City Police Department. Beyond that, Murphy says, ”I’ve never heard of that, and in New York, we had 32,000 cops.“

Gary Sykes, director of the Southwestern Law Enforcement Institute, agrees. ”That certainly does create the appearance of special treatment for that person,“ Sykes says, offering another point that may be particularly relevant in Nashville. ”Generally, male police officers have some sympathy for people they arrest for domestic violence.... They feel that somehow it violates that person’s right because they hadn’t witnessed the incident and, after all, a lot of things happen in private, and it’s really a private matter. That’s kind of the good ol’ boy attitude.“

Sgt. Smith has offered special treatment to at least one suspect before. According to his personnel file, Smith was disciplined in 1983 for his handling of a case that involved the son of a Metro Police lieutenant who was caught burglarizing cars.

According to a disciplinary memo signed by then-Police Chief Joe Casey, the suspect was ”not fingerprinted or photographed“ in the booking process, and while ”three of the four suspects were committed to jail,“ the lieutenant’s son was released to Smith, who signed the necessary paperwork to secure his release.

The situation with Walker and the Domestic Violence Division is yet another problem for a Police Department already beset with a myriad of troubles. The FBI is investigating the department for its involvement in the alleged abuse of Hispanics. This week, burglary detective Archie Spain was suspended 10 days without pay for selling beer without a license. This week as well, another officer was fired and two more were suspended for patronizing The Swingers Club, an adult-oriented business.

The handling of the Denard Walker case is sure to give police critics more ammunition.

”I can’t imagine a situation where it would be appropriate for a police officer, especially one who’s in the Domestic Violence Division, to bond out someone who’s been charged with a domestic assault,“ says Kathy England Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Task Force Against Family Violence. ”I think that’s pretty outrageous. I think that sends the wrong message to victims about the police response.“

Walsh says the incident is a reflection of the problems in the division. ”I think [Police Chief] Turner should be looking at those problems, and certainly, transferring Mark [Wynn] out of the unit is not going to address that.“

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