Cops who talk pay the price

 

wdemarzo@MiamiHerald.com

It's among the first lessons you learn as a rookie cop: Don't break the "code of silence."

If you do, prepare to be an outcast - a "rat."

Two Broward Sheriff's Office deputies were recently suspended after they gave investigators inside information about the alleged falsification of the agency's crime reports.

The deputies, Joseph Isabella and Scott Jordan, not only implicated themselves in the scandal but said BSO supervisors put pressure on underlings to fudge the crime numbers. Isabella and Jordan were either trying to do the right thing or gain leniency if they're ever charged by the Broward state attorney's office.

But, like other cops who have broken the "blue wall of silence, " their careers are finished.

"The consequences are life- changing and extraordinary for police officers who come forward, " said Hollywood attorney Myles Malman, a former state and federal prosecutor, who represented two Miami police officers who had testified against 11 other city cops in a massive gun-planting conspiracy case.

"They can forget about a career in law enforcement. It's over."

Only two former BSO detectives in Weston have been charged since the State Attorney's Office launched a massive probe 17 months ago into allegations BSO deputies falsified crime reports.

Chris Theiman and Christian Zapata have been charged with official misconduct and placed on administrative leave with pay as the investigation continues.

In dozens of statements released by the State Attorney's Office, very few BSO deputies swore they "falsified reports, " nor did they incriminate others within the agency.

Experts say that's not uncommon.

"It's all about 'if you don't back us up, you may call for help one day and we may not come, ' " said George Kirkham, Florida State University professor emeritus, former police officer and criminologist.

"They know they might be in a tight situation one day with their life on the line. They need those cops to help them."

Officers who cooperate in investigations could face years of scorn, threats and potential retribution.

Isabella and Jordan, former detectives, have been suspended without pay.

Experts say bad cops who break the blue wall of silence to testify against other bad cops can say goodbye to their law enforcement careers.

On the other hand, any police agency that learns an officer may be guilty of misconduct or criminal activity has to take measures against the officer to avoid the appearance that it is condoning what the officers did.

"It's tough because the deputies have to tell the truth, and the department has to take action if those deputies admit to wrongdoing, to breaking the law, " said former New York City narcotics detective Robert Leuci, whose exposé of widespread police corruption were chronicled in the book and movie Prince of the City.

"But for those who see what happens when you spill your guts, the unspoken message is loud and clear: 'Keep your mouth shut, ' " said Leuci.

In recent decades, Broward's police corruption scandals have been far fewer than those in Miami-Dade. Consider these notorious Miami-Dade cases:

  • In 1980, the Miami-Dade state attorney's office lost a racially charged case against four county cops accused of the beating death of black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie and tampering with evidence.
  • In the mid-'80s, corrupt officers cut plea deals and turned against others in the Miami River Cops case, a saga of drug rip-offs, bribes and murders.
  • In 2003, two veteran Miami officers testified against 11 fellow cops accused of using throw-down guns or lying to cover up misconduct in four questionable shootings between 1995 and 1997.

KEY WITNESSES

Prosecution would have been impossible without two police insiders - William Hames and John Mervolion - agreeing to plead guilty and testify about the gun-planting conspiracy.

"Without their testimony, we would have been left with this huge conspiracy and no one to explain it, " said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Allan Kaiser, who prosecuted the first trial with co-prosecutor Curtis Miner.

"I don't know if we could have done it without them, " he said. "It would have been a rough row to hoe."

By breaking the code of silence, Hames and Mervolion helped prosecutors convict seven of the 11 defendants on charges of conspiring to obstruct justice.

In most cases, it's the word of a cop against that of a civilian, one possibly with a felony conviction.

"The credibility of the witness is very important, " said former Broward prosecutor Ken Padowitz. "The uniform and badge give inherent credibility to many people who sit on a jury.

"But one problem in prosecuting cops is that police officers put their lives on the line every day, so there tends to be a strong fraternity, comraderie, that joins them together against the prosecutor."

In Broward, BSO deputies and employees recently found out for themselves what happens when that code of silence is breached. Isabella, an Oakland Park detective who requested a transfer back to road patrol after serving a brief stint in the detective bureau, was suspended in July without pay - and later recommended for termination - for telling BSO professional compliance investigators that he made up confessions to clear several burglary cases.

Isabella said he was pressured by detectives and supervisors, who told him, "That's how we do it here."

Jordan, another detective, was suspended without pay several days after portions of his sworn statement to the state attorney's office were made public.

Jordan, who was subpoenaed, told prosecutors he pinned five property crimes on a burglary suspect in 2002 because, he said, his supervisor, Sgt. Mike Menghi, ordered him to do so.

Jordan said he did what he had to do and then asked to be transferred back to road patrol.

While he is not facing prosecution, he is facing termination.

"There's a huge price to pay for coming forward and talking, " said Michael Quinn, author of Walking With the Devil: The Police Code of Silence, and a 23-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department. "The first guys to talk are the ones that get hurt." Even civilians within a law enforcement agency can find themselves snubbed for speaking out.

IN SIBERIA

John deGroot, a part of Sheriff Ken Jenne's inner circle and often seen by his side, was banished to a cell-like office in the high-security mental health unit at the North Broward detention center in Pompano Beach after his sworn statement to the state attorney's office was made public.

DeGroot, who worked in BSO's administration, told prosecutors that he discussed the reporting problem last year with Deputy Joel Steinberg, who compiled statistics for Powertrac, the agency's accountability system.

A recent survey of law enforcement personnel shows nearly half have witnessed police wrongdoing and have kept quiet about it, said Neal Trautman, a former police officer and director of the National Institute of Ethics.

"Those that do come forward are ostracized, and it's a horrible position to be in, " said Trautman, who has taught training classes at BSO.

"But they're moral heroes because for them to come forward takes a much higher level of courage than physical courage, " he said. "When you come forward, you know the price you are going to pay. It's gut-wrenching."

Read more Special Reports - News stories from the Miami Herald

  • The Cuba puzzle

    For Cubans in exile and on the island, what seemed like certain change now looks like more of the same.

  • Fields of death

    For sugar-mill workers in Nicaragua, a fatal disease defies understanding.

  • Fidel Castro

    A look back at the man and his country.

Miami Herald

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category