4 Seattle cops and 7 current or former King County deputies have ended up on the roster because they have credibility problems that could jeopardize...
For more than a year, the King County Prosecutor’s Office on its own has tracked police officers and sheriff’s deputies known to have credibility problems and has painstakingly compiled a list.
So far, the list has 11 names — four current Seattle police officers and seven current or former sheriff’s deputies.
A review of disciplinary records and court files involving these officers reveals a host of issues that could threaten the prosecution of alleged criminals. Some of the officers lied. One destroyed documents. One used racial epithets. Another threatened to kill someone.
In any criminal case, prosecutors are required by law to alert the other side to relevant problems with officers, so that the accused can get fair treatment by being able to challenge their accusers’ credibility.
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The problems with officers on the list have led to serious criminal charges being dismissed in some cases — including one involving the alleged rape of a child.
That county prosecutors have built the list themselves spotlights the haphazard way prosecutors learn about officers whose credibility on the witness stand can be attacked.
All too often, from the prosecutors’ point of view, they find out about problems just before trial, or during trial or plea bargaining, and they feel blindsided, unable to shore up weaknesses in their cases.
In many instances, prosecutors find out about problems with an officer at the last minute from a defense lawyer who has obtained the information from a public-records request, said Kathy Van Olst, deputy director of the King County prosecutor’s criminal division.
“This is the worst way for us to find these things out,” Van Olst said. “We would hope that we would find out from a department independently, but they’ve never done it.”
Seattle Police Department Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer said the department does give prosecutors the names of officers with honesty issues.
However, none of the names of Seattle police officers on the prosecutor’s list came from the department. Additionally, none of the names of sheriff’s deputies was provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff’s spokesman John Urquhart said the prosecutor’s office only recently asked for names of deputies with credibility issues and the office is working on an effective way to provide them.
Officer credibility and its impact on public safety have become a high-profile issue in Seattle in the wake of an investigation into the actions of two Seattle bicycle cops, Gregory Neubert and Michael Tietjen, who were accused of mistreating and planting drugs on a convicted drug dealer they arrested in January.
The officers were cleared of the most serious charges by the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which oversees police internal investigations. Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske largely exonerated them during a news conference.
Even so, numerous discrepancies between the officers’ reports and a videotape of the arrest called their honesty into question. The case against the drug dealer was dismissed.
The videotape in the drug case was turned over to prosecutors by Seattle police internal-affairs investigators because they thought it could be used as evidence against the drug dealer, said Deputy Chief Kimerer. He added that the department did not believe the tape raised any questions about the officers’ honesty.
Nonetheless, after the initial drug case was dismissed, the prosecutor’s office launched a review into dozens of other cases in which Neubert and Tietjen were involved. Two other felony cases were dismissed in March because of the investigation into the officers. The prosecutions of 30 other criminal cases are in jeopardy.
The prosecutor’s office expects to add the officers to its list.
Last week the drug case caused a furor after a citizen-review board report accused Kerlikowske of interfering in the investigation of the officers. The chief blasted back, calling the allegations false and suggesting politics were at play.
Subsequently, Mayor Greg Nickels ordered the new head of the OPA to review the investigation, including the chief’s role and the work of the citizen-review panel. Even that review is controversial, though: The OPA director will be reviewing her boss — the chief of police — and the review board, which monitors her work.
Supreme Court ruling
In February 2006, King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mark Larson, chief of the office’s criminal division, wrote a memo telling attorneys in the office to be diligent in keeping track of officers with credibility problems.
He reminded the attorneys of their responsibility to abide by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland. That 1963 ruling states a prosecutor is obliged to provide the accused with any evidence that might help his or her defense, including information that could be used to challenge the credibility of police officers or other witnesses.
If that information isn’t handed over, cases could be dismissed, allowing suspects to go free. The lawyers could face discipline by the Washington State Bar Association.
Moreover, the law presumes that if one attorney in a prosecutor’s office knows of a credibility issue with a law-enforcement officer, then the entire office is on notice, Larson wrote. The next time that officer’s name comes up in a case, the prosecutor is obligated to turn information over if it is relevant. There is no excuse, even if some in the office don’t know about it.
Larson’s memo got prosecutors to begin compiling the list of “Brady cops.”
But it wasn’t until the Neubert and Tietjen investigation that the prosecutor’s office started contacting local law-enforcement agencies to raise the question of better tracking of officers with credibility problems.
The Brady list is a legal obligation, Van Olst said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that every person on the list is a bad cop or that cases in which they were involved can’t be successfully prosecuted.
For its part, the Police Department doesn’t use a “Scarlet A” to single out officers who have made a mistake or error in judgment in the past, said Deputy Chief Kimerer.
At this point, nobody in law enforcement knows what sort of misconduct should trigger the addition of an officer’s name to the prosecutor’s list.
“It hasn’t been on our radar,” said sheriff’s spokesman Urquhart. “I don’t think it’s been on the prosecutor’s radar either, until now.”
Kimerer said that “very few issues of honesty and integrity are present among officers who are currently working.”
Indeed, the list is tiny compared to the numbers of officers and deputies. The Sheriff’s Office has 750 deputies, and about 1,300 officers work on the police force, including the police chief and other administrators.
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, says the bar for placing an officer on the list should be very high: a rare disciplinary finding of dishonesty against an officer.
But the prosecutor’s office wants to know about more than just those officers who have been found to be dishonest. Already, it has included on its list some who were not disciplined by their employer. The standard for prosecutors is whether the defense could attack the credibility of the police officer or deputy.
Getting on the list
Among the incidents that have landed officers on the list:
In May 2005, Seattle police Detective Donna Stangeland was investigating allegations that a 42-year-old church janitor had a two-year sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl in the parish. During the investigation, Stangeland obtained a search warrant for files on the suspect’s computer. Meantime, the man was charged with three counts of rape of a child.
A forensic computer expert told Stangeland that some of the recovered files appeared to contain private correspondence to the man’s attorney and therefore were privileged and could not be looked at. Nevertheless, according to court documents, “curiosity got the better of her,” and Stangeland read the letters.
Stangeland told her supervisor, Sgt. Richard Welch, about the letters and discussed the content. Neither Stangeland nor Welch told prosecutors, nor did she include the information in her report. At some point, she printed out copies of some of the documents.
Six months later, in November, the forensic expert told prosecutors that the privileged files had been included in the computer records Stangeland had been given. Superior Court Judge Theresa Doyle found the detective had “intentionally read privileged documents, knowing they contained privileged attorney-client communications, and knowing she was not supposed to read them.”
Indeed, according to court documents, Stangeland later said she had shredded the copies because she was “nervous.”
Doyle dismissed the rape charges because of the credibility issues, and the man went free.
Larson referred the case to the department’s Office of Professional Accountability. The office determined the problem was a training issue and did not discipline either officer. Both Stangeland and Welch are now on the prosecutor’s list and both continue to work as detectives. Each declined comment.
In another case, King County sheriff’s Deputy Denny Gulla admitted to internal investigators that in 2004 he had pulled over the husband of a woman he was having an affair with and threatened to kill him. Gulla, who was a sergeant, is still on the force as a patrol deputy. He declined comment.
In November 2004, a defense attorney preparing for a criminal case discovered that Deputy Keith Martin in 2000 had called a black teenager a “monkey boy” or “monkey butt” at Highline High School in Burien and in front of a school official and other witnesses. The statement could taint his credibility in cases involving African-American defendants. The Sheriff’s Office had disciplined the deputy for the comments and for lying in another investigation the year before.
Prosecutors had not heard about the comments, or the discipline. The outcome of the 2004 case was not available, but this much is clear: His comments landed him on the prosecutor’s list. Martin declined comment.
Seattle police Officer Christopher Garrett is also on the list. He was the arresting officer in a felony drug case set for trial in July 2004. The prosecutor asked for a continuance because Garrett had said he was out of town.
But he wasn’t. The following month when he returned to court, he admitted to the prosecutor that he had lied and had been in town. The prosecutor told the judge, who passed the information along to the defendant, a man with multiple drug convictions who was acting as his own lawyer.
Garrett, a member of the department’s elite Anti-Crime Team, took the witness stand.
“Do you consider yourself to be truthful most of the time, all of the time, or just some of the time?” the defendant asked him.
“All of the time,” Garrett answered.
“… Then why did you lie to the prosecutor saying you were on vacation and out of town?” the defendant asked.
The jury acquitted him.
Attempts to contact Garrett were unsuccessful.
When an officer has credibility problems, the impact can be wide reaching.
Last January, when the Police Department opened its internal investigation into Neubert and Tietjen, the two bike cops were potential witnesses in at least 22 drug- and weapons-related felony cases. The city had another 13 misdemeanor cases pending in which the officers were involved.
George “Troy” Patterson — a convicted felon with more than 20 drug-related arrests — claimed that the two officers had roughed him up and planted drugs on him during a nighttime arrest on a downtown corner.
A security-camera video of the arrest hardly resembled what the officers put in their reports: It does not appear they found drugs in the man’s lap, where they said they did; they did not report they held Patterson in a painful compliance hold, twisting his arm high above his back for more than four minutes; and they didn’t report the arrest and release of another man, or his claim that they took marijuana from him.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Erin Becker, the head of the felony drug unit, watched the video and then dropped the charges against Patterson “in the interest of justice” on March 6.
Neubert and Tietjen have declined comment on the initial drug case, the investigation and the subsequent fallout.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Larson decided that the Brady rule would require the prosecutor’s office to notify other defense attorneys whose cases with the two officers were approaching trial. Meanwhile, prosecutors agreed to drop the two most pressing cases in order to protect the Police Department’s “sensitive and incomplete” internal probe.
One case involved drug charges against a convicted felon named Jabarie Phillips, whom Neubert and Tietjen had arrested for allegedly selling crack downtown.
On March 9, Phillips had tentatively agreed to a plea deal that would land him in prison for up to 10 years. Instead, he left court a free man. His lawyer, Lisa Dworkin, said it was “like Christmas.”
Five days later, DeWayne West, 35, was gunned down on his West Seattle porch. A cellphone and a spent shotgun shell found at the scene led Seattle detectives to Phillips, who was arrested and charged with second-degree murder and jailed on $1 million bail.
According to prosecutors, Phillips might have been free at the time of West’s death even if the drug case had gone forward because he had not been jailed after he was charged.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office continues to try to find an effective way of getting law-enforcement agencies to give it timely and complete disciplinary information about officers that may affect its prosecutions. Senior prosecutors and lawyers for the Seattle Police Department and other county police agencies are discussing the issue.
As recently as last month, however, prosecutors were caught unaware, again, about a 2005 case in which an officer’s credibility was questioned.
The Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, without naming names, described in a report earlier this year the case of an officer punished for violations of “arrest procedures” and “honesty” that in many ways resembled the controversial Patterson case:
A suspected drug dealer claimed he was improperly stopped downtown, allegedly roughed up by two officers and arrested.
One of the two officers testified at trial that no force was used in the arrest, even though his handwritten incident report said force had been used. The next day, the officer disclosed his erroneous testimony to the prosecutor and the judge, who declared a mistrial.
Internal investigators decided the officer’s mistake was unintentional and should be handled as a “training issue.” The officer received counseling from his supervisor.
But records of the internal investigation obtained by The Times also showed that the other officer had arrested, handcuffed and released a second man at the scene, and failed to record that arrest in his report — disregarding the same department policy violated in the Patterson case.
In this case, as in the Patterson case, that officer was Michael Tietjen. Prosecutor Van Olst knew nothing about the case until a reporter pointed it out to her.
“We really need to communicate better,” she said.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org