Following one of the highest profile investigations to date, the Metro Police Department’s revamped internal affairs unit hasn’t exactly earned the highest praise from its boss, Kennetha Sawyers.
Last week, Police Chief Emmett Turner signed off on a 14-day suspension disciplinary action for 25-year veteran Sgt. Mark Garafola. Sawyers’ office found that Garafola, who was disempowered as a police officer last November when allegations against him first surfaced, had violated various department regulations governing off-duty work. But a Scene analysis of the Garafola case found troubling flaws in the investigation. And while Sawyers isn’t indicting her troops, she describes the work her investigators did on the Garafola case as only “adequate.”
Sawyers isn’t gushing over her shop’s big project because she knows about the same flaws the Scene does: Witnesses were not interviewed, important allegations were never pursued, hard questions simply went unasked.
Asked why her investigators hadn’t interviewed one important witness, Sawyers explained in a written statement that he was “apparently unknown” to her investigator. Had the investigator taken the time to read police file 9-99-0063, which explored whether Garafola had brokered off-duty security jobs for other officers, the investigator would have seen the key witness’s name and telephone number on page 12. Garafola himself supplied the information. “If the cops today can’t read and understand their own files, god help us all,” says one incredulous retired police officer familiar with the investigation.
To make matters worse, that wasn’t an isolated incident. Investigators failed to search for or locate several other important witnesses. The investigative files on Garafola also revealed that Sawyers’ investigators uncovered incontrovertible, written evidence of wrongdoing by another police officer. Inexplicably, her investigators failed to pursue the matter. No referral was made, no new file opened.
Then there’s the case of Garafola’s polygraph test, which he did indeed pass. The test consisted of only four questions related to the case. The four questions were whether Garafola had ever used the words “bitch,” “son-of-a-bitch,” “whore,” or “white trash” to refer to a Nashville couple whose business he was investigating. (Garafola said he hadn’t used those words.) But other far more important questions, such as whether Garafola’s motivation for investigating the couple was driven by a personal vendetta, were simply not asked. Had they been, investigators may have been able to determine whether Garafola had abused his police powers.
Such raw incompetence may appear mind-boggling to the casual observer. But, fortunately for Nashville, that’s actually as deep as the problem goes, according to informed observers in and around police headquarters. It appears that ineptitude, not corruption, is the problem.
It’s no secret that most cops around the country don’t relish the thought of investigating one of their own. Often, internal affairs probes come up empty-handed because of cronyism or favoritism. Not so in Mark Garafola’s case. In fact, the former head of the department’s auto theft unit has an abrasive personality and has a fair number of enemies in the department. It appears that Garafola got off easy not because of his buddies in the department but largely because of the inexperience, if not outright incompetence, of those assigned to investigate him.
That sad state of affairs in the internal affairs unit provides very serious challenges for Sawyers. A civilian, she was recruited by Turner in February to overhaul the beleaguered internal affairs unit. The unit, which has been renamed the Office of Professional Accountability, clearly is struggling to win credibility among rank-and-file officers. Some saw Garafola’s slap-on-the-wrist as a worrisome signal that Sawyers has yet either to lure the right investigators into her unit, or to consolidate her power base. Many police officers consider the Garafola investigation a “joke.” For her part, Sawyers noted that the Garafola investigation “resulted in uncontested and appropriate discipline.”
A smart political operator and dedicated public servant, Sawyers is well aware of the Garafola investigation’s shortcomings. Still, she considers her office’s handling of the matter adequate work and labels it accordingly.
Such honesty is a refreshing departure from the past. For decades, the Metro Police Department’s corporate culture has mandated that senior officers defend, deflect, and deny when faced with any outside criticism. Sawyers is too smart to play that game. Asked about the shoddy work on the Garafola probes, she says, “It is always possible to improve work product, and to that end I am requiring additional training for all investigators assigned to this unit.”
And here’s another early sign that Sawyers is making the right moves: Two internal affairs investigators were unceremoniously transferred out of the unit this month. One of them, Lt. Percy Smith, was among those handling the Garafola case.
To nobody’s surprise, when given the opportunity to contest his suspension, Garafola quickly accepted his punishment. “The allegations against my client were investigated by two different agencies,” Garafola’s attorney David Raybin explains. “Mark took and passed a polygraph test. He has answered every question that was put to him by investigators and is ready to move on with his police career.” Raybin said the investigations of Garafola were “thorough” and “fair.” A separate investigation into Garafola by the District Attorney’s office found “insufficient credible evidence” that Garafola had engaged in any criminal activity.
For her part, Sawyers is trying to attract top officers to her unit, give them proper training, and supply them with better equipment. She has a lot of catching up to do but she’s working at it. Just this week, two of her investigators returned from out-of-town training seminars.
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