How Police Misconduct Investigations Get Derailed
June 5, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — It’s 2:30 in the morning. For whatever reason, you wake up and determine that there are two armed men in your backyard. Your backyard is located in an area with above average crime in a high-crime city, so you shoot at the men. Twice. Except the two men are police officers in plain clothes, conducting an unauthorized investigation of you based on a tip they received.
There is no evidence of criminal activity and you are not charged with a crime. However, the police department is concerned about the actions of its officers and conducts a further investigation. One of the two officers, Saulo Bravo, is fired and charged with felony Tampering with Physical Evidence and misdemeanor Tampering with a Governmental Record.
The officers did not notify dispatch that they were going to that address, and it went downhill from there. The incident was not properly reported up the chain, and the special regional unit that investigates officer-involved shooting cases was never notified. At the direction of one sergeant, Bravo altered a police report. The assistant chief, on learning of this, dismissed it, stating: “This is not a big deal. The most [the sergeant] is going to get is a complaint served.”
The charges against Bravo were dropped by the District Attorney for Potter and Armstrong counties, Texas, after it was learned that the internal administrative investigation and the criminal investigation improperly shared information.
This is a common problem in police misconduct cases, where a police department is conducting two separate investigations, a criminal one to determine if the officer violated a penal law and should be charged, and an administrative one to determine if the officer should be disciplined or fired. In the criminal investigation, the officer has all of his constitutional rights, the right to remain silent, the right to counsel, and so on. In the administrative investigation, the officer can be ordered to give a statement on the incident in question and can be fired if he refuses or is not truthful.
The information from the criminal investigation can be shared with the administrative one, but the reverse is not true. Here, the two investigations shared information back and forth, which violated Bravo’s rights, so the charges were properly dropped. So Bravo is fired, his partner Marcus Betaag was suspended, two sergeants were suspended, another sergeant retired, and the assistant chief resigned, all from this case, and now Bravo is appealing his termination. He probably will lose his appeal, as he actually committed the offenses.
The bigger issue is that the assistant chief blew off the attempted cover-up by a long-term sergeant. This is not abnormal. Police officers work with each other, and like most people, form attachments and personal beliefs about co-workers. It is a problem when you are trying to investigate misconduct, especially criminal misconduct. Thankfully, in this case the chief took action, threatening to demote the assistant, who then decided to resign. He should have fired the assistant, but any action is better than what has been normal in these cases, which has been no action at all.
And all of this goes back to a tip, and two officers, at 2:30 in the morning, wanting to conduct their own covert investigation. What was the reward? Why were the officers motivated to sneak around at that time of the morning?
Main image via Flickr/_AlanCurran