When John Powers applied to join the Seattle Police Department in 1997, he initially failed a polygraph test that asked about past drug...
When John Powers applied to join the Seattle Police Department in 1997, he initially failed a polygraph test that asked about past drug use. But after learning on the Internet how to beat the test, he tried a second time and passed, according to law-enforcement officials and newly disclosed documents.
Powers got the job, but in the end he couldn’t beat accusations of drug use.
After eight years on the force — half of them under investigation by either the FBI or the Police Department’s internal-affairs unit — Powers, 44, was fired last month after the department concluded he had used drugs and violated other rules.
Internal investigation records, obtained by The Seattle Times under a public-disclosure request, reveal for the first time the extent of repeated misconduct and graft not seen in the Police Department since larger cases in the 1960s.
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New details show that Powers turned his patrol beat — the Belltown entertainment district — into his personal playground. He met a woman who worked at a bar, began an extramarital relationship with her, then drove her home as many as 100 times in his patrol car. He got free meals and drinks on the job, and set up lucrative off-duty security work at nightclubs for himself and other officers in violation of department rules.
The results of the FBI probe, handed to Seattle police internal investigators early this year, revealed breakdowns in the Police Department’s West Precinct, the busy downtown zone where Powers worked.
Powers has denied using drugs but has acknowledged some misconduct.
He first fell under suspicion in November 2000, when a citizen reported seeing him holding a piece of paper under his nose and apparently snorting cocaine while parked in his patrol car under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, according to the documents. The citizen recorded the patrol car’s number, which was assigned to Powers.
The following May, a second citizen reported seeing Powers at a Capitol Hill apartment where people were openly using cocaine. That person alleged that Powers, while in uniform, had left the apartment looking like he was high on narcotics. The citizen wrote down the number of a patrol car assigned to Powers.
At the department’s request, the FBI’s Public Integrity Task Force in Seattle opened a criminal investigation.
Investigators linked Powers to a convicted drug dealer, whose home he visited and called as many as 85 times over two years, usually on pay days, the records show.
Last year, Powers’ estranged wife told the FBI he had used cocaine before and after joining the Police Department, prompting his family to hold a drug intervention during his time on the force. The two divorced about a year ago.
A friend of Powers’ recalled several occasions where the two had used cocaine 10 minutes before Powers went on duty, records show. (The friend has since said his comments were misconstrued, but investigators disagree.)
But efforts to catch Powers with drugs failed, foiling criminal prosecution. Powers had accidentally learned early in the investigation about a tracking device hidden in his patrol car, when the car was taken out of service and stripped of parts.
Still, the FBI found other misconduct, including evidence that Powers, on behalf of a friend under criminal investigation, ran a computer check on the license plate of a car that was being used in an undercover law-enforcement operation.
Free meals and drinks
One woman who worked at a Belltown restaurant told internal investigators that she had given Powers and his sergeant free meals and drinks after Powers began an affair with her.
The woman also said Powers gave her as many as 100 rides to her West Seattle home and later to her apartment on Queen Anne, often while he was on duty, according to the newly released documents.
He also gave her cocaine on one occasion and kept his police radio nearby during times they had sex, she said.
At one point, the woman said, she sat on Powers’ lap in his patrol car while his partner was driving. She said Powers’ sergeant saw them. The partner, facing misconduct allegations himself, resigned in April.
One officer told investigators Powers recruited him to work an off-duty security job at Club Medusa, a popular Belltown nightspot, but discouraged him from making arrests.
The officer recalled that one night Powers told him to release a man who had attacked a pregnant woman. Even though an arrest was required because the assault involved domestic violence, Powers intervened because the suspect was a personal friend of the club’s owner, the officer recounted.
The officer said he ignored Powers and wasn’t asked to work at the club again.
Two Seattle officers told internal investigators Powers didn’t get much work done while he was on duty and made few arrests, the documents show.
Investigators also interviewed a friend of Powers’ who described exactly how Powers and another officer got a discounted meal at Cutters Bayhouse restaurant near Pike Place Market.
The information came to light as the investigators looked into a larger pattern of officers accepting free or discounted meals in exchange for providing favors, including handling disturbances so club and restaurant owners wouldn’t have to call 911.
Powers’ friend said when a $65 tab arrived, he offered to pay his share. Powers and his partner discouraged him, the friend said, saying if he paid full price, the officers would have to do so, too.
The officers “made sure they got the bill and paid about thirty dollars,” according to a police memorandum detailing the friend’s account.
The friend said he was told the half-price policy was to ensure that a patrol car would be parked in front of the restaurant to discourage unwanted behavior by homeless people in a nearby park.
Powers has declined requests from The Times for comment.
In interviews with internal investigators, Powers denied using drugs and most of the other allegations against him.
He acknowledged some misconduct uncovered by the FBI, including giving a prescription Viagra pill to a sergeant and helping a friend break into a garage to recover stolen tires. He admitted giving rides in his patrol car to three women, but said the number of times had been grossly exaggerated. He said he couldn’t remember if he had sex while on duty and didn’t know the license plate he had checked for his friend belonged to an undercover car.
Many of those things were cited when Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske fired Powers Nov. 23.
Newly disclosed documents also show, in more detail than previous accounts, how one West Precinct sergeant, James Arata, interfered with the FBI investigation. Arata had jokingly referred to a subordinate officer as a “rat” in February, after seeing the officer talk to an FBI investigator.
But Arata went beyond that, according to the records. Hinting that someone might be waiting for the officer when he got home, the sergeant pantomimed pulling his gun as if to search the house, the officer told investigators.
In a memorandum, Capt. Neil Low, commander of the department’s Internal Investigation Section, wrote that he viewed Arata’s conduct as “witness intimidation.”
“Humor is often used to mask intentions while conveying information,” Low wrote.
Arata disputed the officer’s account, but last month Kerlikowske suspended him for 30 days without pay.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org