BETRAYED BY THE BADGE
EDITOR’S NOTE: A yearlong Associated Press investigation revealed in November 2015 a nationwide problem of sex assault and sexual misconduct by law enforcement officers. The investigation was triggered by the case of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who on Jan. 21, 2016, was sentenced to 263 years in prison for raping and sexually victimizing eight of his 13 female accusers.
By Matt Sedensky and Nomaan Merchant FPublished: Nov. 1, 2015
lashing lights pierced the black of night, and the big white letters made clear it was the police. The woman pulled over was a daycare worker in her 50s headed home after playing dominoes with friends. She felt she had nothing to hide, so when the Oklahoma City officer accused her of
erratic driving, she did as directed.
She would later tell a judge she was splayed outside the patrol car for a pat- down and then made to lift her shirt and pull down her pants to prove she wasn’t hiding anything.
She described being ordered to sit in the squad car as the officer towered over her. His gun in sight, she said she pleaded “No, sir” as he unzipped his fly and exposed himself to her with a hurried directive. “Come on,” the woman, identified in police reports as J.L., said she was told before she began giving the officer oral sex. “I don’t have all night.”
The accusations are undoubtedly jolting, and yet they reflect a betrayal of the badge that has been repeated across the country.
A yearlong investigation by The Associated Press has found about 1,000 officers who lost their licenses in a six-year period for rape, sodomy and other sexual assaults; sex crimes that included possession of child pornography; or sexual misconduct such as propositioning citizens or having on-duty intercourse.
The AP’s review at once represents both the most complete examination of such wrongdoing and a sure undercount of the problem, limited by a patchwork of state laws. California and New York, for example, had no records because they have no statewide system for revoking the licenses of officers who commit misconduct. And even among states that provided information, some reported no officers removed for sexual misdeeds even though cases were discovered in news stories or court records.
Bernadette DiPino, police chief in Sarasota, Florida, explains some of the reasons sex misconduct is a problem among law officers.
“It’s happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country,” said Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who helped study the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “It’s so underreported, and people are scared that if they call and complain about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.”
The AP’s review is based on a state-by-state pursuit of records on decertification, the process by which a law enforcement license is revoked. Though nine states and the District of Columbia declined to provide information or said they did not track officer misconduct, decertification records from 41 states were obtained and then dissected to determine whether the cause of revocation involved sexual misconduct.
All told, the AP determined that some 550 officers lost their licenses from 2009 through 2014 for sexual assault, including rape, pat-downs that amounted to groping, and shakedowns in which citizens were extorted into performing favors to avoid arrest. Some 440 other officers were decertified for other sex offenses or misconduct, including child pornography, voyeurism in the guise of police work and consensual but prohibited on-duty intercourse.
About one-third of the decertified officers were accused in incidents involving juveniles.
Overall, the victims were overwhelmingly women and included some of society’s most vulnerable — the poor, the addicted, the young. Others had criminal records, sometimes used by the officers as a means for exploitation. Some were victims of crime who, seeking help, found themselves again targeted by men in uniform.
“ People are scared that if they call and complain
about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.”
– Police Chief Bernadette DiPino
The law enforcement officials in these records included state and local police, sheriff’s deputies, prison guards and school resource officers. They represent a fraction of the hundreds of thousands whose jobs are to serve and protect. Nevertheless, the AP’s findings suggest that sexual misconduct is among the most prevalent complaints against law officers.
Recent cases demonstrate the devastation of such depravity.
In Connecticut, William Ruscoe of the Trumbull Police began a 30-month prison term in early 2015 after pleading guilty to the sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl he met through a program for teens interested in law enforcement. Case records detailed advances that began with texts and attempts to kiss and grope the girl. Then one night, Ruscoe brought her back to his home. The victim told investigators that despite telling him no “what felt like 1,000 times,” he removed her clothes, fondled her and forced her to touch him — at one point cuffing her hands.
In Florida, Jonathan Bleiweiss of the Broward Sheriff’s Office was sentenced to a five-year prison term in February 2015 for bullying about 20 immigrant men into sex acts. Prosecutors said he used implied threats of deportation to intimidate the men.
And in New Mexico, Michael Garcia of the Las Cruces Police was sentenced in November 2014 to nine years in federal prison for sexually assaulting a high school police intern.
“ I felt sick and disgusted that a person wearing this badge, lawfully carrying all that power, a
person who I admired and trusted … would harm me in this way.”
– Diana Guerrero
Listen to Guerrero read her letter
Left: Diana Guerrero, now 21, was a 17-year-old intern at the police department in Las Cruces, New Mexico, when she was assaulted by Michael Garcia, a sex crimes detective (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan). Bottom: Guerrero is seen with other EXCEL intern program participants (Handout).
The victim, Diana Guerrero, now 21, said it had been her dream to become a police officer. She was a diligent student, she said, the good kid who’d always done what she was supposed to do. So when Garcia, a sex crimes detective, invited her on a ride-along in the spring of 2011, she happily accepted.
The two visited a crime scene, and then Garcia drove her to a deserted neighborhood, still under construction, where he reached inside her panties and fondled her, then unzipped his own pants and forced her to touch his genitals, according to court records.
“I knew it was against the law and that (Guerrero) did not want me to do it,” Garcia said in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. “But I did it anyway.”
Guerrero, interviewed in November 2014 by KOB-TV in Albuquerque, explains how her sexual assault by Michael Garcia has impacted her life.
Guerrero said in court that the assault left her feeling “like a piece of trash” and triggered depression and flashbacks.
“I lost my faith in everything, everyone, even in myself,” said Guerrero, who agreed to her name being published. She put plans to study criminal justice on hold and is no longer sure she will ever become a police officer.
Experts on sex assault believe most victims never come forward, and said fears can be compounded if the offender is an officer. Diane Wetendorf, who started a support group in Chicago for victims of officers, recalls the stories of those who did go to authorities: Some women’s homes came under surveillance or their children were intimidated by police. Fellow officers, she said, refused to turn on accused colleagues.
“It starts with the officer denying the allegations — ‘she’s crazy,’ ‘she’s lying,’” she said. “And the other officers say they didn’t see anything, they didn’t hear anything.”
Holtzclaw appears in court in Oklahoma City ahead of his trial (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki).
The issue will be in the spotlight in Oklahoma City when former Officer Daniel Holtzclaw goes to trial, beginning Nov. 2, to face accusations of rape, sexual battery or exploitation of 13 women, including J.L. The AP doesn’t name alleged victims of sexual assault without consent, and J.L. declined to be interviewed. She immediately reported her accusations in June 2014, and detectives launched a wider investigation.
Police eventually assembled a six-month narrative of alleged sex crimes they said started Dec. 20, 2013, with a woman taken into custody and hospitalized while high on angel dust.
Dressed in a hospital gown, her right wrist handcuffed to the bedrail, the woman said Holtzclaw coerced her into performing oral sex, suggesting her cooperation would lead to dropped charges.
“I didn’t think that no one would believe me,” that woman testified at a pretrial hearing. “I feel like all police will work together, and I was scared.”
Syrita Bowen visits “Dead Man’s Curve,” where she says she was sexually assaulted by now-
fired Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who is accused in the sexual assault or exploitation of 13 women he encountered while patrolling (AP Photo/Eric Gay).
Holtzclaw, 28, a former football star who is now fired from the Oklahoma City Police Department, has pleaded not guilty. His family has said “the truth of his innocence will be shown in court.” His attorney, Scott Adams, would not respond to requests for comment but indicated in pretrial hearings that he will attack the credibility of the accusers, some of whom had struggled with drugs or previously worked as prostitutes.
The youngest of the accusers, who was 17 when she says Holtzclaw raped her
on her mother’s front porch, said the attack left her unsure about what to do.
“Like, what am I going to do?” she said at the pretrial hearing. “Call the cops? He was a cop.”
Officer sex cases plagued by lax supervision, policies
By Martha Irvine and Scott Smith Published: Nov. 2, 2015
Sergio Alvarez is in prison serving 205 years to life, one of the longest sentences for an officer in the AP investigation (Yolo County Sheriff’s Department via AP).
Sergio Alvarez is a poster child of a predator cop, and of the flaws in policies, technological glitches and culture of policing that can allow such behavior to go unnoticed or unpunished until it’s too late.
As a rookie officer on the West Sacramento police force, Alvarez was assigned to the overnight shift on a beat that included West Capitol Avenue, known as a hangout for addicts, prostitutes and drifters. He volunteered to stay on late-night duty and, over his nearly six years on the job, he gained seniority and almost always patrolled alone.
With the solitude came opportunity.
“That’s where Alvarez falls through the cracks,” said Sacramento attorney Justin Gingery, whose firm represented four of eight women who said they were sexually assaulted by the officer, many in a dark alley near “West Cap.” Convicted in 2014 of kidnapping five of those women and either raping them or forcing them to perform oral sex, Alvarez is now serving 205 years to life in prison.
His case prompted civil lawsuits over police procedures, with a total of $4.1 million to be paid to six victims who sued, and left a new chief taking a hard look at the way the department does business.
“It hurts the heart to see victims. But it makes it even worse when you are, in one way, shape or form, a contributing factor to them being hurt,” said Tom McDonald, a former captain for the Los Angeles Police Department who took over in West Sacramento after Alvarez’s arrest.
Tom McDonald took over as chief of the West Sacramento Police Department after Sergio Alvarez was arrested. Since then, he has called for closer supervision of patrol officers and also plans to
have his ranks start wearing body cameras (AP Photo/Martha Irvine).
The International Association of Chiefs of Police spotlighted the problem of sex abuse by officers in a 2011 report that said certain conditions of the job may help create opportunities for officers to take advantage of victims — having authority over others, patrolling alone and late at night, and engaging with vulnerable citizens.
Those issues were hallmarks of the Alvarez case and many others, along with critical breakdowns in policies and procedures. Those include a lack of supervision and training fueled by budget cuts; misuse or malfunction of electronic systems meant to monitor officers; warning signs about potential misconduct that was overlooked; and a good old boy culture in which inappropriate behavior was ignored or even condoned.
A lack of supervision was a major finding in a March Department of Justice report about the San Diego Police Department, which has been hit with several sex misconduct incidents in recent years, including the case of Anthony Arevalos, an officer convicted in 2011 following accusations that he attacked 13 women.
Justice Department investigators found that budget cuts had hit that department hard, with staffing reductions a “key problem.” Nearly a quarter of sergeant positions — considered first-line supervisors — had been filled with acting sergeants who lacked the training and authority of their predecessors.
Sergeants also were not always working the same shifts as the people they supervised, and sometimes saw subordinates only once a week.
Shelley Zimmerman, who took over in 2014 as chief in San Diego, is now, among other things, requiring patrol officers to wear body cameras to bolster accountability. Zimmerman also reinstated an internal misconduct investigative unit, and requires that more than one officer be present when any women are
Police officials often say that the first line of defense in stopping any bad cop is the screening and hiring process. But in the Alvarez case, Gingery said his own investigation on behalf of his clients found nothing about Alvarez’s life before he joined the West Sacramento force that might have foreshadowed the trouble to come.
Alvarez was a hometown boy who graduated from the local high school, got married and worked at a grocery store before being accepted into the police academy.A few years later, Alvarez’s wife, Rachel, began to fear him, she said in a letter read at his criminal trial. By 2012, she wrote, “Sergio became a stranger to me.”
Rachel Alvarez’s letter (pg 3)
Alvarez’s estranged wife, Rachel, detailed the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband.
That was the same year he found many of his victims, using the power of the badge and any leverage he had — pending warrants, drug possession — to get what he wanted. One victim was an alcoholic, often seen on the streets collecting bottles and scrap metal for money.
“I remember when I was done, I stood up and I glanced straight at his name tag, and he said, ‘Now everything Mr. Alvarez does is a secret,’“ she testified at trial, recalling the first of four sexual incidents with the man she called a “creepy cop.”
The criminal case uncovered several previous red flags: The GPS unit in Alvarez’s squad car was not working, which meant that no one could track or verify his location. He also routinely ignored an order to use the audio-visual recording unit inside his patrol car.
Alvarez fell through the cracks (pg 10)
Sergio Alvarez was known to have disabled the camera system inside his patrol car.
The device captures what happens during traffic stops, recording the scene in front of a patrol car and also the back seat, where, in Alvarez’s case, investigators eventually found seminal fluid matching him and the vaginal fluid and DNA of one victim.
McDonald, the new West Sacramento chief, has implemented changes. He’s instructed sergeants to be more involved in direct supervision of street cops, and requires a supervising officer on all shifts, including the overnight. He is mandating that his officers use their audio-visual units and that cars get regularly serviced to ensure the units and GPS systems work. And the city has applied for a grant to purchase body cameras.
McDonald said the changes were not a specific response to the Alvarez case but rather part of an attempt to create an atmosphere in which officers quickly report any signs of misconduct.
Others who’ve dealt with these kinds of cases said that efforts to prevent sexual misconduct must go beyond rules and regulations to address the boys’ club culture of policing.
As an officer in Ocean City, Maryland, Bernadette DiPino, now in Sarasota,
Florida, encountered what she called a “laissez faire” attitude about sexually inappropriate behavior. She recalled one patrol officer in the Maryland department who was known for using binoculars to peep in people’s windows while on duty.
“Everybody knew about this guy, but they did nothing to stop it,” said DiPino, who later served as chief in Ocean City.
During a deposition for a civil suit conducted by Albuquerque attorney Shannon Kennedy, Michael Garcia, a former sex crimes detective now in federal prison, describes a sexually charged culture in the Las Cruces Police Department in which other officers referred to his victim, 17-year-old police intern Diana Guerrero, as “hot.”
Attorney Shannon Kennedy said she learned of similar behavior in the case of Michael Garcia, the former sex crimes detective in Las Cruces, New Mexico, who’s in federal prison for sexually assaulting former intern Diana Guerrero. Kennedy said the criminal case and a pending civil lawsuit revealed a department rife with sexism and sexual innuendo — crotch-grabbing, porn viewed at work on cellphones, and female employees routinely called “whores” and “bitches.”
Male officers “think this sexual banter is just locker-room culture,” said Kennedy, who represents the victim in the civil case. “They just think it’s funny.” An attorney for the city said neither he nor police officials could respond because of the lawsuit, though in a deposition for the civil suit, Garcia described an atmosphere in which officers regularly commented on the appearance of women at the station, including Guerrero.
“Tickets for treats” (pg 11)
Bevard said her daughter complained about Alvarez to other officers, who dismissed her.
In West Sacramento, one civil lawsuit against the department and the city, filed on behalf of a mentally ill woman who attorneys say was twice coerced into giving Alvarez oral sex and once was sodomized by him, alleges that trading sexual favors for non-enforcement of laws was so well known within the 70- member force that officers nicknamed it “tickets for treats.”
Heatherlyn Bevard’s mentally ill daughter, Rebecca, is one of six Alvarez victims who will divide a $4.1 million settlement in a lawsuit against the city of West Sacramento and its police department.
The woman’s mother, Heatherlyn Bevard, said in an interview with the AP that her daughter, Rebecca, tried to tell a few officers about Alvarez and “a couple of
them just laughed at her, ‘OK, whatever.’”
McDonald insisted that such behavior among his officers will not be tolerated.
“They need to understand that it’s an expectation that if they see something that’s inappropriate, they need to stand up.” Bevard, however, says no apologies or settlements — even promises to fix the system — will mend her broken trust.
Broken system lets problem officers jump from job to job
By Nomaan Merchant and Matt Sedensky LPublished: Nov. 3, 2015
aw enforcement officers accused of sexual misconduct have jumped from job to job — and at times faced fresh allegations that include raping women — because of a tattered network of laws and lax screening that allowed them to stay on the beat, the AP’s yearlong
investigation also found.
Michael Ragusa Christopher Epperson
Serving 10 years for the kidnapping and sexual battery of Serving a three-year probation sentence for sex three women in 2006 and 2007 (Miami Police Dept.) assaults of two county jail inmates (Wasatch She
The broken system for policing bad officers includes significant flaws in how agencies deal with those suspected of sexual misconduct and glaring warning signs that go unreported or get overlooked.
And while the AP’s review is the most comprehensive available, the finding that about 1,000 officers in six years lost their licenses over sexual misconduct is a certain undercount. The number measures only officers who faced a decertification process and not all states have such a system or provided information. Even among states that did provide records, some reported no officers removed for sexual misdeeds even though cases were identified via official records and news stories.
In states that do revoke law enforcement licenses, the process can take years. And while there is a national index of decertified officers, contributing to it is voluntary and experts say the database, which is not open to the public, is missing thousands of names.
Some officers are permitted to quietly resign and never even face decertification. Others are able to keep working because departments may not be required to report all misdeeds to a state police standards commission, or they neglect to. Agencies also may not check references when hiring, or fail to share past problems with new employers.
In 2010, a woman sued the Grand Junction Police Department in Colorado, insisting the department erred in hiring officer Glenn Coyne and then failed to supervise him. Coyne was fired, and killed himself days after he was arrested on suspicion of raping the woman in September 2009.
Police decertification by state, 2009 – 2014
What is reported:
Local law enforcement agencies are required to report any officer’s arrest to the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. Convictions or lying to the commission
NOTE: Includes state decertifications and AP’s tally of those that were sex-related. Numbers do not reflect the full scope of the problem. Six states and the District of Columbia said they do not decertify officers for misconduct: California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island. Louisiana, Maryland and North Carolina provided no information to the AP.
That was sexual assault accusation No. 3, court records show. While Coyne was still with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, another woman accused him of subjecting her to a strip search and groping her. The complaint came after Grand Junction had completed its background check, and Mesa County officials — who declined comment — did not investigate or inform Coyne’s new employer, according to court records.
A second complaint came in 2008 when a woman accused Coyne of sexual assault. Grand Junction officials placed the officer on probation and cut his pay and, even though the district attorney declined to prosecute, Coyne was still on probation when the third accusation was lodged. While the courts found no deliberate indifference by police in employing Coyne, one ruling said the “handling of Officer Coyne could and should have been better.”
Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said a subsequent evaluation of hiring procedures found them to be sound, but added that “it’s safe to say that we’re more thorough than ever.” Prospective officers must sign a form allowing the department to review previous personnel records, and it’s considered a red flag if employers don’t respond.
“If an agency won’t speak with us, or seems reticent to supply details, we’ll either dig further into other sources or we just won’t consider the applicant any further,” Camper said.
Police standards agencies in 44 states can revoke the licenses of problem officers, which should prevent a bad cop from moving on to police work
can result in decertification.
elsewhere. But six states, including New York and California, have no decertification authority over officers who commit misconduct.
Roger Goldman believes every state should have a system for decertifying problem officers. Six don’t.
And in states with decertification powers, virtually every police standards agency relies on local departments to investigate and report questionable conduct. Those reporting requirements vary, said Roger Goldman, an expert on police licensing. About 20 states can decertify an officer only after a criminal conviction.
Consider the variations between Pennsylvania and Florida. In Pennsylvania, the state agency responsible for police certification reported just 20 revocations from 2009 through 2014, none for sex-related crimes or misconduct. Florida decertified 2,125 officers in those six years, some 162 for sex-related misconduct.
The difference: Florida is automatically notified when an officer is arrested and requires local departments to report any time an officer is found to have committed misconduct involving “moral character.” Pennsylvania relies on law enforcement agencies to report when an officer has committed a crime or misconduct.
The records provided to the AP did not include any decertification for former Pittsburgh police officer Adam Skweres, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to extorting sexual favors from five women and is serving up to eight years in prison.
Former Pittsburgh police officer Adam Skweres was convicted of extorting sexual favors from five women he promised to help with legal troubles. He’s serving up to eight years in prison (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette via AP).
Another concern is the length of the decertification process.
In Texas, Michael John Nelson left the Hardeman County Sheriff’s Office in 2010 after being accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old neighbor. The local district attorney told the AP he did not prosecute in exchange for Nelson relinquishing his law enforcement license, an agreement reached with the victim
and her family. Yet by the time his decertification was final — a year after he left the sheriff’s office — Nelson had already worked briefly as a reserve deputy in the town of Bayou Vista.
Paul Odin, who replaced the Bayou Vista police chief who hired Nelson, said background checks often are limited by a department’s size and budget, and that “a lot of agencies, a lot of cities — to avoid lawsuits — won’t disclose anything negative.”
“ If you’re decertified in a state, you can move to a state that doesn’t have decertification and
continue to work.”
– Roger Goldman, licensing expert
A National Decertification Index contains the names of nearly 20,000 officers who have lost their licenses. But despite calls since 1996 to expand the index and require participation, contributing remains voluntary, and only 39 states do so. Goldman, the decertification expert, said he believes every state should license and ban officers the same as they do other professionals, such as doctors and teachers. But law enforcement unions call that unnecessary when departments can fire officers and prosecutors can pursue criminal charges.
Ultimately, union officials said, policing the corps is the job of a chief.
“You’ve got to start at the beginning,” said Jim Pasco, director of the Fraternal Order of Police. “Did the process fail when they hired these people? … And that’s a problem that shoots through a whole myriad of issues, not just sexual