The SPD blues

When it comes to dealing with cop crimes, Chief Stamper's message is a mess.

Don't blame Seattle cops if they seem confused today: The same week that police officials and the King County prosecutor were leveling charges against a detective who allegedly took and returned crime-scene money, Police Chief Norman Stamper's office was confirming it was OK for cops to hand out cocaine to drug tipsters.

At a press conference April 27, Stamper and County Prosecutor Norm Maleng announced felony theft charges against longtime and now-retired homicide detective Sonny Davis, 55. Basing their beliefs on the accusations of SPD Detective Cloyd Steiger, they said Davis took—and a day later brought back—$10,000 in cash he'd discovered at a South Seattle homicide scene in October 1996, following a police shootout with a barricaded man.

According to charging papers, Steiger watched Davis find and stuff the money in his pockets. He allegedly told Steiger it was "a squad thing" and that their supervisor, Detective Don Cameron, "is going to watch how you handle this."

Cameron later allegedly asked Steiger if he wanted a share of the cash. Angry, Steiger declined and told other detectives and officers about the incident—although, worried about the effects on his own career, he did not tell internal investigators, he says. Steiger later confronted Cameron, he claims, and "angrily and loudly . . . told him the situation was unacceptable." He claims to also have confronted Davis, who allegedly told him, "It used to happen a lot in the old days," but times had changed. Davis reputedly then returned the money to the crime scene with Cameron where they pretended to discover it anew, and subsequently logged it as evidence. The money eventually was turned over to the family of the dead man.

About eight months later, Steiger claims, he did tell an internal investigator about the incident, informally, and no action was taken. The allegations finally surfaced publicly two months ago when, Steiger says, he mentioned the incident to a county prosecutor. (Davis has strongly denied Steiger's claims, as has Cameron, who faces departmental action.)

Stamper, who initially indicated the accusations were new, then admitted the incident had been looked into years ago, and last week filled in more blanks: It turns out a total of eight detectives and officers knew all along of the Davis allegations, which were never formally investigated or reported to his office, he said.

The chief also seemed to put his foot in his mouth (which is what he said he did at his previous news conference) when he publicly pronounced Davis guilty. The detective "violated the trust of this community and of his fellow officers," Stamper said on camera. Conversely, he also said the eight members of the police force who knew of the alleged felony and didn't come forward were to get only oral reprimands because of "my deep appreciation for the work they do." He did not mention Davis' three decades of serving and protecting.

While the chief was announcing the theft charges, which some officers see as a political overreaction, Stamper's office was also announcing that it is not misconduct for police officers to hand out illegal drugs. Department legal adviser Leo Poort says officers can't be held liable if they break a law in the otherwise "lawful performance of their duties."

He was responding to Seattle Weekly's inquiry about a police undercover cocaine buy last year at a Central Area restaurant. As officers drove away after scoring 2 grams of crack, a suspect who had helped with the buy "stopped them in traffic and asked for a piece of cocaine for her part in the transactions," a report notes. One officer "gave her a piece of cocaine that he had just purchased." The owner of the restaurant complained to internal investigators that he was set up and that cops were abetting drug abuse in the neighborhood.

But, Poort said last week in a letter to the Weekly, the officers made a judgment call to hand out drugs to maintain their cover, and an Internal Investigations Section (IIS) probe determined their actions "do not amount to misconduct."

In other words, breaking some laws is lawful, and the department will decide when that is so. That may be all well and good, except that the internal breakdowns in the Davis case may instill little faith in the SPD's already questionable in-house investigative process. Critics say the IIS has negligible outside oversight, allowing the department to slough off serious allegations against police personnel, including rape and failure to investigate felony drug transactions, which affect the public's safety—even allegations made by fellow officers (see "More Cop Wars," SW, 4/13).

Veteran cop Mike Severance says the IIS lacks accountability when dealing with such complaints. "I filed a complaint against a former IIS investigator accusing her of seven felonies. It was never investigated," claims Severance, who has had a long-running policy battle with the department. "I filed another complaint accusing the same IIS investigator and now a retired captain of first-degree perjury. It was never investigated. I filed a complaint against a former IIS commander for violating the Domestic Violence Act and department policy. It was never investigated." He calls his police bosses "a bunch of hypocrites."

Similarly, in a case filed in US District Court here, former cop Dan Mathewson—who is suing the department for wrongful discharge—claims the chief's office failed to act when he reported a high-ranking officer for committing a felony. (Stamper's office denies the accusation.)

To some officers, these and other incidents are signs that the department is in turmoil. Says one officer, "There is a great deal of internal strife here, but there is a great deal of cover-up and protectionism" as well. At the very least, through its own words and actions the department is sending mixed signals to the rank and file, and to the public, about what kind of behavior—and crimes—will or won't be tolerated, investigated, or punished.

 
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