Ignoring cops with shady histories

In the latest incident of (attempted) puppycide, Knoxville, Tenn. Deputy Brian Rehg fired four rounds at a 15-month-0ld dog owned by Henry Bright III last week. Bright seems to bear no ill will toward Rehg, because he says crime and violence are out of control. That really isn’t true. Violent crime, like all crime, has been in dramatic decline since the mid-199os (although the drop has leveled off in recent years.) Bright’s father was apparently murdered, so though his opinion isn’t supported by much evidence, it’s certainly understandable.

But what of Rehg, who shot the dog in an attack that appears to have been unprovoked?  When someone sent me this story, Rehg’s name seemed familiar. Sure enough, Rehg and four other deputies were involved in a bizarre incident in 2011 during a traffic stop. It began when Rehg pulled over 19-year-old Terry Wayne Phillips II for speeding. Phillips had several other teens in the car with him. Rehg then called the other four deputies for backup. At some point during the stop, the deputies turned off their lapel microphones, then searched Phillips’s car. That search apparently came up empty. But Rehg was prepared to charge Phillips with reckless driving and drag racing. Here is where it got weird:

Phillips cooperated with the officers, consenting to a search of the Acura and responding respectfully. Officers cursed at him and produced a baseball bat, then made a proposition — the reckless driving and drag racing charges would be dropped if Phillips pulled off a stunt with the bat. With the bat perpendicular to the ground, the officers made Phillips put his forehead on the end and run in circles until he became dizzy. Then officers made him run around a cruiser without falling down.

After completing the humiliating task, Phillips was sent on his way with a speeding ticket. Four days later, Phillips, whose uncle is a Knoxville Police Department officer, called the KCSO Office of Professional Standards to file a complaint. Because Deputy Brad Cox is the son of Capt. Tom Cox, who runs the Office of Professional Standards, a Major Crimes investigator led the internal probe.

To his credit, Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones did punish the deputies — he temporarily stripped them of their police powers and assigned them to jail duty (although punishing deputies for subjecting citizens to cruel and demeaning hazing rituals by assigning them to the jail seems like poor judgment). And that punishment might have had something to do with the fact that Phillips’s father was a cop with the Knoxville Police Department.

But Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Pam Strickland pondered at the time why the deputies weren’t fired:

What other adolescents have been humiliated and shamed by this crew or possibly other deputies? What other individuals who believed they were alone on a county road late at night [have] been intimidated while surrounded by those who allegedly were sworn to protect and serve?

And why, in spite of his stated rage and disappointment at their behavior, didn’t Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones fire them? After all, Jones described what they did as “unprofessional, inexcusable, unauthorized and intolerable.”

KCSO spokeswoman Martha Dooley said it was because the five admitted their involvement and that … it was “a foolish, immature mistake that didn’t rise to the level of termination.” The officers range in age from 31 to 40.

So, do criminals who admit their mistakes get the same sympathy? . . .

I am told that in the human rights world that what the deputies did appears to be a “violation in lieu.” The actors know that the violent act they want to do is wrong, so they choose to do some nonviolent act in lieu of the more violent behavior.

That makes it no less heinous.

It was almost a year ago that Rehg and the other deputies got their full policing powers back. And it took him a year to kill a dog.

Both incidents may seem trivial. But a cop capable of the kind of unprofessionalism on display in the Phillips incident is likely to go on to violate the rights of other citizens, too. Rehg is already on his way.

This is part of a much larger problem, though. In much of the country, it’s nearly impossible to fire a bad cop. (The one exception: cops who report abuse by other cops. They can sometimes get fired.) A misbehaving police officer can pile up mounds of citizen complaints that should have thrown up red flags. But bad cops enjoy job protections that require them to actually rape or kill before they can be fired. (And even then, it can be difficult.) The Mike Riggs article at the previous link lists lots of examples. But here’s a recent case from Baltimore:

A Baltimore police officer was arrested Wednesday in Howard County and charged with sexual abuse and solicitation of a minor, county police said.

Charles Hagee, 44, of the 8800 block of Goose Landing Circle in Columbia, was arrested after police say he communicated with a 14-year-old girl advertising prostitution services online.

Howard County police said investigators believe the two exchanged text messages before meeting at his home and engaging in sexual activity on three occasions between January and May 2013.

Hagee had a history:

For years, Hagee had been on a list of officers deemed untrustworthy by prosecutors, known as the “do not call” list, under the administration of former Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. The list was a tool for prosecutors to prevent police from working on cases in which their integrity might be challenged on the stand.

The Baltimore Sun reported in 2008 that Hagee had responded to a woman’s 911 call in 2004 even though he knew he was the subject of her complaint, and then attempted to misdirect other officers into chasing a fake suspect.

At a department trial board, Hagee pleaded guilty in August 2006 to two administrative charges of conduct unbecoming a police officer and received a 10-day suspension, loss of 10 days’ leave and involuntary transfer from the Organized Crime Division, according to court records.

He was allowed to return to enforcement work briefly in 2008, but after prosecutors discovered the 911 case and Jessamy placed him on the do not call list, he was assigned to administrative duties, according to records and news reports.

So instead of firing him, they give him a desk job. Not at all optimal. But at least he’s kept off the streets. That is, until a new “pro-police” prosecutor comes along whose law-and-order sensibilities compel him to ditch the sensible practice of not putting cops with a history of deception on the witness stand.

Court records show that Hagee was not a police witness in any case filed in court from the time he was placed on the list until 2011, after the election of State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, who vowed during his campaign to abolish the list. Hagee is listed as a police witness in about a dozen cases, including a burglary case from 2013 in which a man received four years in prison.

Oh, and the kicker:

City records show that Hagee earned more than double his base salary in fiscal year 2013, with gross pay of $138,800 on a base salary of $65,200. In fiscal year 2012, he earned about $130,800 on $64,600 base pay.

Even on the rare occasion that bad cops do get fired, they’re often permitted to simply get a new gun and badge at another police agency. There was a good example of that problem in display recently in Albuquerque after the highly publicized killing of homeless man James M. Boyd by several officers from the city’s police department. It’s just the latest in a number of troubling police-involved shootings in the city.

One of the cops who shot Boyd was Officer Keith Sandy. In 2007, Sandy was one of four cops hired by the Albuquerque Police Department after they had been fired by the New Mexico State Police for “double dipping,” or working for pay as private security guards while they were on the clock and getting paid by taxpayers.

When APD hired Sandy and the others, then-Deputy Police Chief Mike Castro told local news station KRQE, “They do not carry guns, they are not going to be badged. They’re civilian employees. They’ll be collecting evidence . . . I have no question of their ethics.” All of that turned out to be a lie. All four were carrying guns and badges within a few years. Sandy, in fact, was quickly promoted to several elite units within APD, including a task force charged with apprehending the city’s most dangerous criminals. As the report from KRQE news shows, in his seven years on the force, Sandy has been the subject of numerous complaints and a civil rights lawsuit and has had prosecutors drop his cases due to questionable behavior during his investigations.

Maybe it’s time for police leaders to be a little more questioning of the ethics and character of cops with shady histories.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · April 8