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A cure for the blues?

SAPD’s sexual-misconduct woes reflect a national problem

Tiffany Maples

 

Since 2007, 11 San Antonio Police Department officers have received indefinite suspensions related to sexual misconduct. In 2009, one third of officers fired for misconduct were investigated for a sexually motivated offense. That doesn’t surprise national experts; police departments throughout the country face similar issues with rape, sexual assault, improper searches, baseless traffic stops, and officers demanding sexual favors from suspects and victims of crime. Last year’s high number of SAPD officer-misconduct investigations across the board generated an external review of the department and a massive reorganization. But will that be enough for San Antonio to successfully change behavior that police officers have engaged in throughout the country for as long as laws have been enforced?

Trying to study or compare police sexual-misconduct cases results primarily in frustration, because large police departments don’t track those numbers. Timothy Maher, one of the few academics who specializes in the issue, had to conduct his own surveys between 2001 and 2005 of police departments just to have a data set to evaluate — previously none existed. The former police officer and criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis also had to develop the definition of what he calls “Police Sexual Misconduct.” In a 2003 article for the Criminal Justice Review, Maher defines police sexual misconduct as “any behavior by a police officer whereby an officer takes advantage of their unique position in law enforcement to initiate or respond to some sexually motivated stimuli,” including everything from flirting on-duty to rape.

In his survey of 14 departments in the St. Louis metropolitan area, Maher discovered that none specifically mentioned police sexual misconduct in written policy. A national report by the women and transgendered people of color advocacy group INCITE stated that the NYPD, the country’s largest police department, also did not have a definition for sexual misconduct or policies pertaining to it. Following suit, SAPD does not include specific mention of police sexual misconduct in their rules and regulations. Like most other departments, SAPD includes non-violent forms of sexual misconduct as a violation of standard conduct and behavior rules. “There is no separate category for creepy behavior,” wrote City Attorney Robert Reyna in an email.

Yet both Maher’s study and INCITE’s report found such bad behavior to be widespread. In Maher’s interviews with 40 police officers in the St. Louis area, most officers estimated they knew of at least 20 sexual-misconduct incidents per year. The officers reported having firsthand knowledge of 213 such incidents over the last year and secondhand knowledge of 690 such incidents over the same time period, excluding two officers who reported extremely high numbers. According to the INCITE report, sexual misconduct accounted for nearly 25 percent of law-enforcement license revocations in Florida and Missouri.

In San Antonio, city officials prefer to speak in more general terms, but acknowledge serious concerns about officer behavior. While Mayor Julián Castro applauds SAPD for its crime-fighting capacity, he makes a point to keep informed about behavioral issues. “There’s been numerous sexual assaults. We’ve seen speeding, and we’ve seen officer-involved shootings,” he said during a phone interview. “I’m interested in how better training and management can enhance the department’s performance.” Assistant City Manager Erik Walsh, who oversees the police and fire departments, said the City Manager’s office called for an organizational and operational review by Matrix Consulting Group because “we’d had a number of issues that had surfaced over the past 12-24 months. We had misconduct, we had issues with crime statistics two years ago, just a whole host of internal and external issues.”

The resulting Matrix report, a 197-page document released in May, states, “there have been several public incidents in the past few years which have raised issues … relating to the soundness of ‘organizational culture.’” According to Maher, INCITE and other organizations that have investigated police sexual misconduct, reported offenses, those in which a police department has taken disciplinary action against the officer, are the tip of an iceberg largely comprising unreported or ignored misconduct.

Craig Nash: On an early morning/late night in February, Craig Nash, 39, then an on-duty SAPD patrol officer, allegedly picked up a transgendered woman near Guadalupe and Zarzamora streets. He handcuffed her, put her in his squad car, and took her to a secluded area where he then forced her to give him oral sex and raped her, said the victim. Immediately after the incident, she took the bus to the South Frio police substation to report rape by an on-duty officer and said she had “cum up her butt” to prove it, according to Nash’s arrest-warrant affidavit.

This time, the SAPD leapt into action, arresting Nash that day on criminal charges of rape and official oppression. But his actions weren’t without alarming precedent. After Nash’s arrest, a second person, a male, came forward to allege he was sexually assaulted in the summer of 2008. Texas Civil Rights Project Director James Harrington said he helped file a complaint in August 2009 about Nash’s rough and inappropriate treatment of a domestic-violence victim discovered screaming downtown by Harrington’s son late one night last summer. Harrington’s son called the police, and Nash responded, eventually resorting to scare tactics to get the name of the woman’s abuser. “We went to City Council,” said Harrington, “and we said this guy is off his rocker.” Their complaint was filed with Internal Affairs and Harrington met with Police Chief William McManus in September, but the department never investigated the complaint.

Nash’s case represents not only an extreme example of an on-duty officer-turned-sexual predator, it also highlights two issues complicating any thorough evaluation of police sexual misconduct: unreported incidents and what Maher calls “the blue wall of silence.” In his report, Maher writes, “police departments and police officers allegedly cover up, ignore or remain silent about incriminating matters, even when brought to their attention.”

There is no way to determine how many police sexual-misconduct complaints go unreported. Local critics have complained that SAPD’s complaint process intimidates civilians [see “Dismantling the Boys Club,” May 26], but underreporting of sexual abuse is a global phenomenon not limited to police-instigated offenses. The INCITE report states “it is estimated that overall, only 1/3 of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to law-enforcement authorities. One can only imagine that this rate is far lower among women who are raped or sexually assaulted by the very law-enforcement agents charged with protecting them from violence.” Maher told us by phone, “Many women say, ‘I just want this to go away,’ and try to forget about the incident completely.”

To further ensure they won’t be disciplined by their department, some police officers target groups they perceive as less trustworthy. Among the victims of the 11 complaints against SAPD officers were a mentally ill woman, a teenager, a prostitute, a transgendered woman, and a woman in possession of marijuana. Even if the officers are caught, victims may feel intimidated or mistrustful of police and therefore less likely to issue a complaint. The INCITE report points out that while the victim of such misconduct may also legitimately be charged with a crime, an officer is often trained to provide expert testimony. “Who are they gonna believe?” asked Maher. “The cop or the dancer from the strip club?”

In very rare cases do fellow officers ever come forward in support of complainants or with allegations of their own. John Van Maanen, an ethnographer who spent a year studying a police force by going through its academy and working on patrol for six months, attributes this to the extremely tight bonds developed and promoted within the police department due to the trust officers must have in their co-workers for the high-stress aspects of police work. While Van Maanen says a proportionally small number of officers are responsible for most complaints against the department, “the rest are bystanders, and they don’t speak out against an officer. That largely defines the culture.” Chief McManus echoed this sentiment. When asked if the department could make officers feel more comfortable coming forward with complaints about fellow officers he said, “It’s not so much a problem with supervisors, it’s more about peer pressure and everybody looking at you because you ratted out a fellow officer.”

Gregory Mickel: Last summer, a police officer stopped a vehicle for a traffic violation on the East Side. After learning one of the occupants had prior prostitution arrests, he ordered the male driver to leave, and then had sex with the female occupant in a dark parking lot near Burnet. When she reported she was raped, Gregory Mickel made himself the responding officer to her call and canceled all medical care for her. He also attempted to close out the case himself, telling other investigating patrol officers the woman was mentally ill and lying about the incident. Mickel was indefinitely suspended one month later. In September he plead guilty to two misdemeanors of official oppression and violation of civil rights.

James McClure: On September 1, James McClure stopped a female driver for traffic violations. When he noticed a suspicious bulge in the woman’s pants, he instructed the woman to follow his squad car to a business center on Hardy Oak. Once there, he told the woman to strip naked, at which point he discovered a bag of marijuana in her pants. Instead of arresting the woman, he fondled the naked woman and returned the marijuana, letting her go free. He was indefinitely suspended six months later.

Stories from women who get out of traffic tickets based on their looks and interaction with male officers are fairly common, but what if, like racial profiling, physical appearance is what gets a woman pulled over in the first place?

Many departments, like ours, keep data on racial-profiling complaints. Yet there are no such statistics for gender profiling. A 2002 report entitled “Driving While Female,” conducted by the University of Nebraska’s Police Professionalism Initiative, issued a scathing report accusing police departments across the nation of engaging in questionable stops of female drivers that sometimes lead to harassment or more serious sexual abuse.

While the vast majority of women pulled over for a traffic violation won’t end up raped or murdered, gender-based stops are at least an improper use of police resources to gratify some sort of private goal or curiousity, which constitutes the type of sexual misconduct Maher says is most prevalent among cops.

“It’s almost like a perk of the job,” to some officers said Maher, who himself served as a police officer for more than two decades. Maher wrote that police officers “commonly pull drivers over in order to ‘check out’ or talk to the driver or passengers simply because they are female.” In our phone interview, he said most interactions don’t result in physical abuse of the driver. “They’re flirting, and they’re fishing, but it’s inappropriate.” The “Driving While Female” report takes a harder line: “These abuses are systemic of a pervasive sexist culture within a police department.” The report hypothesizes these stops continue due to the same reasons that many police officers still engage in sexual misconduct. “Police tolerate them by failing to act on citizen complaints, failing to adopt necessary policy and training and failing to supervise their officers in a professional manner.”

Christopher Martinez: In an internal-affairs investigation of Christopher Martinez that ranged from August to November, 2009, investigators turned up on- and off-duty sex in public (in both instances, private security firms caught Martinez), phoning in a false narcotics lead against an ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, visiting female acquaintances instead of responding to on-duty calls for service (he also submitted an overtime request for one of these instances), running background checks and telephone-record reports on female acquaintances, and disabling his patrol car’s GPS unit. Martinez was indefinitely suspended in March 2010.

No matter what behavior-related policy police departments put in place, what data they ask officers to record or discipline they threaten to levy, enforcement won’t come easily since most patrol officers work their territory solo. “Police work is something you do on your own,” said Van Maanen. “Very rarely do sergeants and lieutenants ever see what you do. That makes it very difficult to supervise.” Though SAPD internal-affairs investigations highlight the extent to which officers can be tracked through the technology they must use, they also describe instances where officers make end runs around the systems by entering phony information and disabling tracking devices.

In the case of SAPD, the Matrix report found that “first line supervision is a significant issue in the Department,” and “their ability to work with the staff they supervise is extremely limited and operations have evolved with this expectation among line employees.” It also pointed out that SAPD was “well above” the sergeant-per-officers benchmark ratio of one-to-six. To that end, SAPD has moved swiftly to reorganize administrative duties away from field supervisors and added 18 more sergeants in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, a change already in the works before Matrix released its report. “What we’re going to be doing is focusing on supervision,” Chief McManus said after a May city council meeting, “and making sure that supervision is interactive and proactive throughout the tour of duty. So that you have supervisors riding in on calls, checking in with officers to see how things are going.” He told the Current, “When someone gets in trouble, when someone commits an act of misconduct, and you think ‘how the heck could that ever happen?’ the first thing that police do is look at the entrance standards, there’s gotta be something wring with the way we recruit people. Turns out in most cases not to be the entrance standards. Then it’s gotta be the policies, something lacking in our policies that we’ve gotta address. Turns out our policies are tight. Gotta be the training. So we look at the training. You can never get enough training. But essentially it is not the training. What it turns out to be is supervision.”

McManus and Walsh said not only will supervisors be more numerous and more available to officers — in most divisions the new sergeant-per-officer ratio goal is a maximum of one-to-eight, they will also stand for discipline alongside their rogue officers.

“There’s going to be cases where the first question anybody has is, ‘what was his supervisor doing?’ We’re gonna have to start holding them accountable,” said Walsh. The office of the Chief confirmed that any supervisor violating department policy related to misconduct by one of their officers will also be disciplined, though they were vague about what might happen to a supervisor not found to have violated policy personally.

“That’s good, if they actually implement it,” said Van Maanen of the department’s new supervision plan. “They may reorganize, but that alone won’t change the habits. You don’t say ‘OK sergeant, go out and supervise your squad,’ and the sergeant who’s been sitting in the station for 15 years suddenly does it.”

The Matrix report noted some discontent among the rank-and-file and their supervisors already. “It was equally clear in these interviews and in focus group meetings that a ‘culture’ has evolved particularly in the field in which line employees do not welcome supervisory presence.” And without at least some specific written guideline to complement the verbal instruction about misconduct and behavior McManus says he gives cadets and officers, supervisors may have a hard time spotting police sexual misconduct among their ranks. “I think it goes back to airing dirty laundry,” said Maher, speaking in general about police departments’ reluctance to issue specific sexual-misconduct regulations. “This does not make a department look good. To come up with a policy suggests you have a problem. To suggest you have a problem makes you look bad, but I would argue just the opposite: They’re being proactive.”

Sooner or later, SAPD may find itself forced to be proactive. Maher sits on a task force with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which intends to develop guidelines to prevent police sexual misconduct. The IACP is one of four groups that form the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which SAPD should join early next year, after the three-year accreditation process concludes in December. Should the IACP guidelines be adopted by CALEA, the SAPD would have to demonstrate its adherence with up-to-date proof of compliance.

In some related areas, the SAPD is already being proactive. For instance, the department has a policy that any sexual act on duty, consensual or not, is coercive. In-service training by members of the GLBT community has been offered quarterly for the past three years (though only one session was directed at senior officers). The Rape Crisis center confirmed that they offer one full day of training per week to SAPD that covers sexual assault. Cadets also receive one hour of training from Internal Affairs about previous police sexual-misconduct cases. The maligned complaint process has become slightly less intimidating, and may get more transparent at the behest of the Mayor’s office and CALEA standards.

To implement the Matrix review recommendations, the Department put together a committee of community stakeholders, including the director of the Rape Crisis Center and the Battered Women’s Shelter and a member of the San Antonio Gender Alliance, which may bring a different perspective to how police interact with women. Also on the committee are community representatives from the East, North, South and West sides of the city and three academics, including UTSA’s Michael Gilbert, a leader in the field of restorative justice, which examines criminal justice through the needs of victims and the goal of reduced recidivism.

At the group’s first meeting, the 14 committee members, plus five officers in uniform and one representative from the San Antonio Police Officers Association, gathered around a long table at City Hall. Maybe it was just the excitement of finally being asked their opinions, but members we spoke with after the meeting, including Lyn Blanco, director of the Rape Crisis Center and Lucy Hall, a member of the Community Workers Council on the West Side, had only positive things to say about SAPD’s outreach. Noting that the group would meet weekly for the immediate future, Blanco said, “That kind of real intensive look surprised me. [The SAPD] really want to make changes quickly.” Hall viewed the meetings as a continuation of community outreach which had already resulted in fewer resident complaints against the department from her neighborhood.

Changing culture requires more than just new policies and oversight. Among those who study police behavior, there is a consensus that to be successful, the shift needs to encompass recruitment (more women, for instance), training, and the connection police officers feel to the community they represent. “People who talk about how to change police culture often have great suggestions, but they don’t get very far,” said Van Maanen, pointing to failed policies in large departments like New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego. “There’s a sense of entitlement that officers obviously take advantage of. Having been there myself, I can understand why. I just can’t justify it ethically or morally.” Ultimately, it comes down to figuring out how to institutionalize the most basic principle McManus conveys to his cadets: “The community’s confidence is everything, and the way that we keep that confidence is by treating people the way we want members of our family to be treated if they get stopped by the police.” •

Officers Suspended for Sexual Misconduct

All officers except Mark Hunt received indefinite suspensions. Hunt received a 10-day suspension. Officers Gonzalez, Nash, Mickel and Muriel faced criminal charges.

6/26/2007 While on-duty, officer Victor H. Gonzalez arranges for an 18-year-old prostitute to give a customer a blowjob for $60. He also receives a blowjob. She reports the incident to SAPD when she is arrested in November.

8/24/2007 Officer David Alonzo begins dating a woman he previously arrested on a DWI charge, and against whom he knew he would have to testify in her upcoming trial. He later denies their relationship to an assistant district attorney investigating the woman’s DWI charge.

9/1/2008 After stopping a woman for a traffic violation and suspecting her of carrying drugs, officer James C. McClure takes the woman to an office park where he tells her to strip naked. He then fondles her and lets her go without arresting her for a bag of marijuana he found (and returned to her) during the strip search.

12/18/2008 Officer Richard W. Acuna stops a woman walking on South Presa and he learns she has two outstanding warrants. He drives her to a nearby underpass and under the pretext of a drug search fondles the woman underneath her clothes and then releases her without arresting her for the warrants.

1/12/2009 A 14-year-old accuses officer Mark E. Hunt of showing her provocative photos of women he had on his cell phone while Hunt patrolled a housing project on the South Side. This followed a similar accusation made in September 2008.

2/2/2009 Two women claim a man exposed himself to them while they were on the main campus at UTSA. Police later learned the man was SAPD officer Patrick Muriel.

4/27/2009 Officer Anthony A. Sterling leaves his post at SAPD communications for an hour and a half to run a personal errand and get a blowjob.

6/26/2009 During a traffic stop, when officer Gregory Mickel learns the female passenger has prior prostitution arrests, he orders the male driver to leave the vehicle while he has sex with the female. When the woman later calls SAPD claiming Mickel raped her, he makes himself the responding officer and attempts to close out the case and cancel medical care for the victim.

8/25/2009 While off-duty, officer Kyle B. Goodwin throws a birthday party for his girlfriend during which he assaults a female guest, groping under her swimsuit top and forcing her hand over his crotch.

9/24/2009 Allied Barton Security catches officer Christopher Martinez for the second time in one month having sex with a female in a remote area of Brooks City Base. This time Martinez was on-duty; the first time he was off-duty but used his SAPD status to get released from custody. A related investigation discovered Martinez also used police resources to search the records of female acquaintances, called in false information on an ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, and failed to respond to calls while on-duty in order to conduct personal business.

12/13/2009 After meeting an employee at a La Cantera store the evening before, officer Gabriel Villarreal uses police resources to find the woman’s current address then visits her under the pretext of a 911 hang-up call. The related investigation unearths multiple inappropriate conversations with fellow officers and use of police resources to search personal information of many other women. Three other officers receive lesser disciplinary action related to the investigation.

2/25/10 A transgenedered woman accuses officer Craig Nash of rape after he picks her up while on-duty. SAPD arrests Nash the same day. A second male alleges Nash sexually assaulted him in the summer of 2008.

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