Bad cops: weeding them out, keeping them out

December 19, 2017

 

They’re the people at the front lines of safety, the ones we in the public put our trust and faith in to both protect and serve. Police officers – presumed to be above reproach as paragons of society’s expectations. Yet, like communities at large, there can be bad apples in a police force. The key is, how do local police agencies weed them out or, better yet, how do they prevent them from ever getting on the force. It’s an effort that has involved the state legislature helping to indemnify employers against liability while simultaneously forcing prospective hires to have to do more thorough background checks to stop the dangerous spread.

 

While most police officers show up every day, work hard, safeguarding their communities, there are tales of those who lie, cheat, misuse their authority, sexually harass, or abuse the public. 

 

By now, it’s a well-known, if tragic tale of an out-of-control, rogue cop with a history of poor behavior who jumped from agency to agency until both his, and an unfortunate victim’s, luck ran out. On the evening of January 28, 2015, Floyd Dent of Detroit had been to visit a friend in Inkster and was pulled over by an Inkster police cruiser. According to a police report of the incident, Dent had failed to use a traffic signal and hadn’t stopped at a stop sign – hardly major crimes.

 

Inkster police could see that Dent, 57 at the time, was driving with a suspended license,  allegedly from an unpaid driving ticket from several years previously. According to Dent – and police dashcam video – Dent opened his car door and put his hands out the window, to let officers know he was unarmed. However, officer William Melendez, who said he believed Dent was reaching for a gun, approached Dent’s car with his gun drawn.

 

Dent opened his door and was dragged out by Melendez, who put him in a chokehold on the ground, and then delivered 16 blows to Dent’s head. Another officer arrived, and for some reason used a Taser to stun Dent three times. At no time, in the video at least, did Dent appear to resist either Melendez or the other officer. 

 

Melendez wrote in his police report that as he approached Dent’s open car door, Dent, who had no previous criminal history and had been a Ford employee for 37 years, looked at him “with a blank stare as if on a form of narcotic,” and stated, “I’ll kill you.” He also claimed that Dent had drugs in the car, which it turned out Melendez had planted.

 

Dent ended up in the hospital with a fractured left orbital, blood on the brain and four broken ribs.

 

Eventually, Dent was exonerated. Melendez’s records showed that he had faced allegations of police brutality before – at one point, he had more citizen complaints than any other officer in Detroit, where he had served on the force from 1993 until his resignation in 2009. Melendez had even earned the moniker “RoboCop” as a Detroit cop, and was named a defendant in at least a dozen federal lawsuits, where he was accused of planting evidence, wrongfully killing unarmed civilians, falsifying police reports and conducting illegal arrests. Some of the suits were settled while others were dismissed. 

 

In the Dent case, Melendez went to jail for 14 months after being found guilty of assault and misconduct. The city of Inkster, whose police department hired him in 2010, agreed to pay Dent $1.4 million.

 

A significant question is – how did Melendez even get hired by Inkster police after his record in Detroit as a “rogue” cop? 

 

Inkster Police Chief William T. Riley, III, was not in charge of the department at the time Melendez was hired, when Chief Vicki Yost was at the top. At the time he was the chief of police for Selma, Alabama, where he had been called in to rehabilitate their department after rising through the ranks of the Newport Beach, Virginia department. 

 

He was subsequently hired in Inkster to revamp the department. 

 

“I vet very heavily. I look at their history – how they live, invest, even interview in the military if they’ve been in,” Riley said. “I’ll get waivers and see all of their records from Germany, Interpol, because you can have issues in the military. In the south, we did polygraphs – here we can’t use polygraphs. But it’s a tool we use, because if someone waivers on something, you can ask why, or look at the inconsistencies. If you can explain it, and we can reasonably understand, fine. If you’re not telling the truth – sorry, we cannot hire you.

 

“If for someone who’s already in law enforcement, we’re going to have you sign the waiver, and we’re going to dig. And if it’s something that’s not in our policy – sorry, you do not belong here. You’re hiring this person to represent your city, and if there’s something behind that would jeopardize your city, why don’t we have access to that information?”

 

Riley, who arrived in Inkster in late 2015, is proud to report that in his first full year, 2016, he reduced crime 12 percent, and in 2017, another 3 percent. The department is operating on better cylinders, as well. “I brought in a guy who did diversity training, and bought body mics,” Riley said.

 

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard believes he knows how officers like Melendez get hired at small agencies after leaving larger forces, often after agreeing to resign instead of being fired. He said the key to preventing the jumping from agency to agency of “dirty” cops is simple – good hiring practices. “It’s absolutely incumbent (upon every agency) to do a full and complete background check on hiring, and it’s critical to require an agency to do that check,” Bouchard said. “If, after that, then they’re responsible.”

 

He said in the Inkster case, it really wasn’t a surprise, when he looked at the case after the fact. “It’s not uncommon. If you have a problem in one agency – no surprise he’d have a problem with another one,” Bouchard noted.

 

He said for years there has been a toxic problem of agencies sweeping things under the rug to avoid having to confront firing officers that are really a problem. “Some of the smaller agencies would say, ‘If you would just resign, we will just say nothing happened,’” he said. But he said that just created a ripple effect of more and more problems.

 

“I know for a fact we’ve terminated deputies that have been hired by other agencies without checks on references,” Bouchard alleged. 

 

Not all small agencies fail to do reference checks, Walled Lake Police Chief Paul Shakinas said. With only six full-time officers and a dozen part timers, he said he has hired about 40 officers in the eight years he has been chief. But he is careful in his background checks.

 

“William Melendez – he applied here and I never even interviewed him,” Shakinas noted. He said instead, as an agency struggling with a small budget, he has had success with younger officers who are sometimes cut from larger departments “that have training programs designed to wash them out. It’s constant training. Most of the 40 I’ve hired who have left went to full-time positions with other departments, from Taylor to Rochester.”

 

Bouchard said agencies that fail to check references are not only creating danger for the public, but also possible added expense for residents. “Royal Oak Township, they have hired bad apples from other agencies, and they’ve had to pass two 10-year millages to pay for settlements prior to disbanding (Michigan State Police currently provides their police services). It’s terrible for residents,” Bouchard said, noting that leaves residents on the hook with larger tax bills, paying off the settlements long after the “bad apple” has left the force. The city of Inkster was left on the hook, with residents paying Dent for Melendez’s misdeeds.

 

It’s not just small agencies that can encounter a rogue cop. West Bloomfield Police Chief Michael Patton, with 80 sworn officers on his force, noted that in 2010, shortly after he became chief after coming up through the ranks, he had to kick off a criminal investigation of one of his own officers, former officer Jeffrey Pinzia, who had been accused of fixing tickets.

 

“We began the investigation internally, but when we determined there was enough we turned it over to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, and they investigated it, and there was enough for him to be charged and eventually, he plead guilty,” Patton said of the incident, where Pinzia worked with an individual named Rudi Gammo, who had a history of drug charge convictions. 

 

Gammo would offer people who got traffic tickets a $2,000 fee to have Pinzia, a veteran of 15 years on the force at the time, get them out of the tickets. 

 

Other West Bloomfield officers got wind of the scam, leading to the investigation. Pinzia was charged with misconduct and conspiracy to misconduct, and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and two years probation; Gammo was sentenced to one year in jail and five years of probation.

 

“He resigned,” Patton said. “Ultimately, we just want the truth if there’s issues.”

 

Often officers who get in trouble resign before they are charged with a crime, and then go and get hired by another agency. “They can get fired by another agency prior to it becoming public,” said Hermina Kramp, acting executive director of Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES), because their misdeeds haven’t become known, and if the hiring agency doesn’t do a thorough investigation, the cop could get picked up by another agency, either in Michigan or another state.

 

 

Officers who are charged with a crime lose their law enforcement license, Kramp said, because MCOLES has the authority to revoke their license.

 

“No one can operate as a law enforcement officer (in Michigan) without a license from MCOLES. We get involved by way of our statute,” she said. “There are some things that are revocable incidents, such as when they are acquitted or there are no charges. We have to wait until there is a conviction. Then we revoke it and it’s permanent. That prevents the jumping because we can prevent the hiring.”

 

But not every substandard officer is in actuality a criminal or in danger of losing their law enforcement license. Some people just shouldn’t be police officers, and wash out of training, and jump around and around. 

 

In October 2017, state Senator Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) introduced Senate Bill 223, the Law Enforcement Officer Separation of Service Record Act, “to require the creation and maintenance of certain law enforcement officer personnel records; to prescribe the information that may be contained in the personnel records; to permit law enforcement officers to review the personnel records; and to provide for immunity from civil liability to law enforcement agencies in certain circumstances.”

 

Both Bouchard and Kramp said they asked Jones, a former Eaton County sheriff, for the legislation, which has had wide support among local police agencies.

 

“The national media has labeled it the ‘gypsy cop problem,’” Jones said. “A cop gets in trouble in one department, and in some departments – not all – the chief calls in the cop, and says, instead of firing you, how about you just resign. It saves on the cost of firing. Then the cop goes and gets hired by another agency. When the new agency calls about hiring the cop, the old agency just gives the dates of employment. It makes it very difficult to do a proper background check.”

 

“A lot of agencies would not disclose information even when we called them because they could have gotten sued if they disclosed the truth,” Bouchard said. “We needed something that let agencies disclose and get them off the hook.”

 

“We’re working to get the officers that jump from agency to agency,” Kramp said. “In the past, the standard response was HR (human resources) would get a request from another agency, and they would send it to their HR department. They could only respond – either the officer left in good standing or the officer worked for X date to X date, with no other information provided. Senator Jones was concerned about other information in an officer’s file that couldn’t be revealed that filled in the background.”

 

Kramp explained a key point of SB 223 – which was signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder, becoming Public Act 128 of 2017, effective January 15, 2018, is “requiring former employers to provide a personnel background to a prospective employer so they can make a more thorough hiring decision. And there are safeguards provided on both sides. There is an immunity clause built on it, so the former agency is immune from liability from disclosure. The officer is allowed to review his own file, and if he disagrees with the agency, and if he doesn’t get to a formal resolution with his former employer, they both can write letters that can go forward to the new employer.” 

 

The act does not require or permit MCOLES to do the sharing of the information between law enforcement agencies, as Kramp said they are not a law enforcement agency. 

 

An analysis of the act stated, “It is possible for an officer with a poor employment record to  resign from one agency and be hired by another that has no knowledge of the officer’s history. In some cases, an officer might repeatedly engage in misconduct, resign, and find employment with a different police department. While this pattern is not common, it is known to occur in Michigan, as well as across the country. In order to address this phenomenon, it was suggested that law enforcement agencies should be required to maintain and share officers’ employment records, and be prohibited from hiring an officer without that information.”

 

“They always had the requirement to disclose, but sometimes an officer didn’t or an agency wouldn’t discover (the issues) until an incident took place,” Kramp said. “On the other side, not everything that is disclosed or in a file is negative. It could be something as minor as a violation of policy, uniforms, coat and tie, or it could be something major, some kind of accusation of fraud, or something that isn’t proven, like excessive force, but there’s no criminal charges. There could be substance abuse issues, alcohol problems, where there aren’t charges, and the person could have gotten help, but a prospective agency should be made aware. But when it’s not disclosed, because it can’t be asked about, it’s a problem.”

 

“The law makes it a requirement for an agency to retain all records,” said Jones. “The former department must provide them, and they have immunity. The former officer can’t sue the former department for releasing the information.

 

“I tried to be fair,” Jones said. “I’m a former union officer (when he was a sheriff’s deputy) and as a sheriff, in management. Most officers are just trying to do their best. Ninety-nine percent of officers are good. But you get the bad apple who bounces around, and you certainly don’t want to ship the bad off. If they’re assaulting citizens or other criminal behavior like theft, they don’t belong in the police department.”

 

“It will help agencies when an officer separates. This lets agencies better vet their future candidates because it requires an agency to document why an officer was separating,” said Michigan State Police legislative liaison Sgt. Tim Fitzgerald. “It pushes the handshake agreements out the door.”

 

“It (the legislation) is a start. It spells out that if they apply to your agency, the applicant has to sign a waiver and an agency has to ask for employee records,” Bouchard explained. “There won’t be any more excuses. There won’t be any reason that an agency doesn’t get somebody’s records. It’s absurd – and that’s a problem. If you don’t do a full a complete background check, you don’t know what you’re hiring, and that’s your problem and you’re liable. We need to keep updating and upgrading based on today’s world.”

 

The Police Officers Association of Michigan, the union representing officers, did not support the legislation, and president Jim Tignanelli did not return several calls for comment.

 

“Most departments are unionized. We had very little pushback from unions, and I did put in if an officer feels terminated unfairly, they can write up their side and put it in their file with all their records,” Jones added.

 

“As much as police unions object to SB 223, because there’s still not enough transparency about separation, ultimately we just want the truth, and if there’s issues, we have questions,” pointed out West Bloomfield’s Chief Patton. “It’s beneficial to get the scoop on why someone’s separating. Sometimes they’re just a bad fit, or got off to a bad start, and maybe with maturity or more time, they can be be a good officer.”

 

Patton said the best time to separate from an officer is during their probationary period, which is a minimum of one year. “After that time, they become full members of unions,” he said, noting that there is plenty of time for officers to be observed on ride alongs as well on solo patrol. 

 

“Usually there are enough tea leaves,” Patton said, “of off-duty behavior, car crashes, drinking and driving, substance abuse situations – that there are early signs” if there are going to be significant later problems.

 

“When we have men and women of character, you will have better outcomes in police agencies,” Bouchard stated.

 

“You’re always going to find out if there’s someone who was let go from another department for poor performance or discipline reasons. Or some people were just not cut out to be police officers and don’t have what it takes,” said Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Chief Noel Clason. “All police chiefs and police agencies in metro Detroit have great relationships and share information.”

 

He said he and other chiefs in the area have shared their concern about information, or lack thereof, with MCOLES. “We want some kind of flag in the system. If Bloomfield Hills were to fire an officer for some reason, that information should be accessible through MCOLES. Because someone could be fired by us, and then go apply up in the Upper Peninsula, and they might not be as thorough, and they’d get hired.”

 

He said Bloomfield Hills does “very, very in-depth background investigations on all applicants. Before I was chief, I did many of them.”

 

Clason and many other chiefs say a good background investigation may take a month to do a thorough job.

 

Social media, and an applicant’s use, is a tool that departments use to the extent they are permitted. “If they (an applicant) has privacy settings, we can’t access them without a search warrant,” Clason explained. “But we always ask for consent. If they don’t give it, it sends up a red flag. It’s a way to reach people.”

 

“We ask, and they can refuse that, but we’ve not had anyone refuse,” said Bloomfield Township Police Chief Scott McCanham. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, why refuse to show them?”

 

“When you decide you want to be a cop, it didn’t start at 18. You have to live and act like it going back. There’s nothing against drinking, it just has to be in good taste. We’re very critical of police officers because it’s a 25- to 30-year commitment,” Clason said. “We’ve already passed on multiple candidates because of any kinds of social media posts that were not in ethical taste for a Bloomfield Hills public safety officer.”

 

Yet, Clason has a soft spot for officers already on his force, noting, “Cops are human, too – they  make mistakes, and if we can help them through a rehab or another situation, we do.”

 

He was referring to Officer Richard Matott Jr., son of a former chief in Bloomfield Hills, who  was suspended for 144 hours (3.5 weeks) without pay for conduct unbecoming an officer and excessive use of alcohol following an off-duty arrest in October 2012 in Shelby Township, where he was found passed out in an intersection with a loaded gun in his lap. Matott remains on the force.

 

“Cops are held to a higher standard and they’re never off-duty,” Clason acknowledged.

 

“We’re definitely one of the departments that invests in doing thorough background checks,” said Troy Public Information Officer Megan Lehman. She said the packet that has to be filled out is at least 25 pages long, with all previous employers, social contacts and credit history.

 

“We’re out talking to your neighbors, not just at your current resident, but at all your former residences, including in the towns you went to college,” she said. “We go to towns out of state. For people who apply from departments out of state, we use multiple sources and talk to numerous people, and even fly to the cities to check them out.”

 

“The key to prevent this is on the hiring department. We ask not just the command structure, but we try to talk to the rank and file to get a full picture (of the applicant’s previous job experience),” said Rochester Police Chief Steve Schettenhelm. “If I get a two-word response – if I get, ‘so and so worked from July to June, and that’s all I can say,’ then I need to look forward. Canned answers are a red flag to look further.

 

“Applicants who can’t explain, can usually explain why they are no longer working at department XYZ,” Schettenhelm said. “It takes us a while to go through the hiring process. It’s an important decision to put someone on the streets of Rochester, so we need to fully vet them.”

 

In his department, which currently has 22 sworn officers, they have hired both directly from the police academy and experienced officers, looking for the best qualified individuals and mix for the positions. “We recently hired one newbie from the academy, and another from Chicago, who had left law enforcement and wanted to get back in,” Schettenhelm said. “Our background investigator drove to Chicago and talked to people from his last job, other people he knew. We feel it’s that important to make the effort to drive there and speak to people there, and find out about the person, why the person left, and not just pick up the phone.”

 

On the other end, he said he has had to let people go, although not for excessive force nor for sexual harassment.

 

“It can be work performance issues, off-duty activities that reflect poorly on them,” he explained. “We’re looking for behavioral issues that discredit the agencies, with friends and family, perhaps with alcohol and substances that reflect poorly on the agency.”

 

Schettenhelm said they typically find out, and depending on the situation, attempt to handle it internally. 

 

“We investigate it like any other situation, and try to rectify it like any other. If it doesn’t, and we need to terminate (the individual), or if someone feels they need to resign, that being a police officer isn’t the right place for them,” then that takes place.

 

“The guys who go from place to place to place – we don’t even look at them further,” said Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence. He said Birmingham police use EMPCO, a Troy-based company that specializes in testing services for public safety and municipal government services, to do preliminary background checks, and “then we hire their list. We do a thorough investigation of anyone who we’re considering hiring. If there’s any history that would make us question them, we do an even more thorough investigation.

 

“If we hire someone and they go through the field training officer program, we would not keep someone who doesn’t meet our standards of what a Birmingham officer is, and we let them go,” Clemence continued. He said he has not had to let someone go for excessive force issues or disciplinary actions, although he has had people leave the department.

 

“As long as they bring a legal, written brief, I let them see their entire employee file, which may include disciplinary actions,” he said. “We’re a transparent, government agency.”

 

Bloomfield Township’s Chief McCanham said, “If we get somebody in our hiring process and there’s any indication of a red flag, they’ll go through the ringer even more closely. If they lie on our applications, it’s immediate grounds for dismissal. It’s best to be more straight up and tell us, ‘I was dismissed for X,’ – ‘I didn’t understand this procedure and was dismissed,’ – ‘I couldn’t get along with XXX,’ or ‘My philosophy didn’t vibe with their philosophy.’ In this administration, we’re very knowledgeable, and we’ve seen everything.”

 

McCanham said they hire applicants with both prior law enforcement experience and people with no prior experience.

 

“We’re very confident in our training program. We’re confident we can train them,” he said. “We have let some people go, because our training process is very rigorous, with a very demanding orientation. And we’ve let some people go that haven’t been able to make it and they’ve gone on to have successful careers at other agencies. Sometimes it’s a maturation process, a learning curve. We tell others, ‘they’re a good kid, but the pace here was too much.’ It can be a multitude of things.

 

“Conversely, if we get an applicant who says, ‘I didn’t make it through their training program,’ we’ll ask, where do you see yourself now? What have you learned from your termination?’ And they may be ready for it now, and they may work out. But the headliner officers are not even going to get a seat at the table with us.”

 

When Bloomfield Township has had to dismiss officers, “it’s been for attitude, violation of policies, use of force, and emergency vehicle operations,” McCanham revealed. “We’ve had those situations. We’re forthright when they go on to another job.”

 

Bouchard is a little less sanguine. 

 

“There have been a couple of situations where we felt deputies used excessive force, and we terminated them,” he said. “An arbitrator said, ‘Well, they’ve had such stellar careers, they didn’t really use that much excessive force,’ and we’ve had to take them back. But I won’t redeputize them – put them back on the streets. I put them on desk jobs. It’s a no-brainer to me. If they’ve used excessive force, why would you ever want to hire that person?

 

“I know for a fact we’ve terminated deputies that have been hired by other agencies without checking on references,” Bouchard continued, including one was for sexual harassment. “We terminated one deputy for sexual harassment, and he was hired by a smaller agency, and I know for a fact that they didn’t contact us for a reference.

 

“Drugs, alcohol abuse, excessive force – whatever the reason someone has been terminated – their work history should be checked, or the new agency is the one responsible,” Bouchard emphasized.

 

“I think it’s getting better,” he said cautiously. “People are a little more aware of things going on in the world. But the ways to improve your agency is through hiring and doing the right thing.” ­

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