Post and Courier

Problem cops: A systemic failure

BY RON MENCHACA AND GLENN SMITH
Of The Post and Courier Staff

March 5, 2005

Port of Charleston police officer Patrick O'Neal leveled his pistol at the stunned crowd of dockworkers, barking orders as he straddled a longshoreman who lay handcuffed and bleeding at his feet.

Moments before, dockworker Richard Brown made the mistake of walking away from O'Neal during an argument over a parking ticket. O'Neal jammed his gun into Brown's neck and slammed the burly longshoreman to the ground, witnesses said.

Brown lay flat on his stomach, struggling to see, his eyes burning from a close-range blast of the officer's pepper spray.

"He was crazy," Brown said of the June 19, 2004, incident. "I've never seen nobody like that."

Others had.

O'Neal's explosive temper had surfaced earlier in his law enforcement career, but State Ports Authority officials didn't know this when they hired him to guard one of the nation's busiest ports.

In fact, a North Charleston police official who once ran the port's police force helped line up O'Neal for the job. Port officials say they were not told O'Neal had twice been investigated by his former employer, the North Charleston Police Department, for his role in off-duty fights. He had been arrested, reprimanded and forced out the door.

On paper he seemed to be the ideal job candidate. That's because the system designed to alert police agencies to problem officers broke down at every level, leaving O'Neal with an unblemished record.

His case is not unique.

An investigation by The Post and Courier uncovered endemic failures in the state's system for tracking police officers that allow problem cops to keep their badges despite histories of misconduct and even criminal behavior.Among the newspaper's findings:

-- Discipline and recruiting standards vary widely among municipal and county law enforcement agencies.

-- The state agency responsible for enforcing professional standards among the state's 14,000 officers lacks basic resources such as field investigators and a disciplinary board.

-- Cash-strapped police agencies sometimes overlook an officer's past problems to fill their ranks because they can't compete with the police salaries in larger cities.

-- Some police officers with criminal records remain in law enforcement through court programs that wipe charges off their records.

-- Sloppy record-keeping, fear of lawsuits and the code of silence within law enforcement make it difficult for hiring departments to adequately investigate an officer's past.

Other states are not immune to the problem, and many have adopted new laws aimed specifically at weeding troubled cops out of the profession. But South Carolina is slow to change or acknowledge that its system is broken.

SYSTEM RIDDLED WITH HOLES

Until three years ago, the state turned a blind eye toward misconduct, allowing police departments to hire virtually whomever they wanted. Being charged with serious crimes such as manslaughter, kidnapping and criminal domestic violence didn't stop some cops from finding law enforcement work in South Carolina.

All the state did was collect reports on misconduct, firings and resignations from the state's nearly 300 police departments.

In 2002, the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy began taking an active role in departments' hiring practices. Since then, it has flagged some 167 officers for possible misconduct and character problems. It barred 43 of them from returning to law enforcement.

Nobody knows how many problem officers slipped by before the state started paying attention.

The extent of the problem is difficult to gauge because the state's records are in such bad shape. They are only partially reliable back to 1997. But those records give an idea of the size of the problem. Since that time, nearly 800 officers have been fired for misconduct. Another 2,000 received "undesirable separations" in which they were fired or forced to resign.

Even with the state's stepped up enforcement since 2002, the discipline system is so riddled with flaws and cooperation among police agencies so deficient that cops with past problems move from department to department with relative ease.

Consider the case of Roudro Gourdine. He was hired as a Berkeley County sheriff's deputy last year despite two allegations that he used excessive force on suspects in his custody at other departments.

The former Charleston police officer killed a man with his bare hands inside the department's downtown booking area in 1987. After he was acquitted of manslaughter charges, he went to work for police in Andrews, where he was sued for breaking a suspect's collarbone in a jail cell confrontation four years ago. No charges were filed against Gourdine, but the suspect sued the town and Gourdine for negligence and violation of civil rights. The town settled for $15,000.

Known in law enforcement circles as "gypsy cops," such officers account for only a fraction of the police throughout the state, but their misdeeds can taint entire departments, engender distrust in the communities they serve and endanger the public they are sworn to protect.

Their names are often well-known in police circles, where their presence rankles those who believe officers should be held to a higher standard of conduct. But few are willing to speak out about the problem, fearing alienation and derision from fellow officers.

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt said it behooves law enforcement to police itself.

"If an officer does something wrong, whether it's in California or South Carolina, it has a direct reflection on every officer in the United States," he said. "We have to guard the profession."

When no one watches the gate, problems can slip through. Examples abound across the Palmetto State, from Summerville to Seneca. In two recent cases:

-- A Santee police officer who was speeding in his cruiser while on an errand for his chief struck a minivan, killing one motorist and severely injuring another. He landed a new police job in Bonneau before his role in the accident triggered an indictment for reckless homicide. The state attorney general's office is prosecuting the case, but the academy was unaware of the indictment until The Post and Courier asked about it.

-- The Summerville Police Department found evidence that one of its officers fabricated being shot and lied about the episode to investigators. The department allowed him to quietly resign and did not disclose the findings of its investigation despite indications that the officer invented similar stories while working at other area departments.

The problem is not new

North Charleston police took a chance on Edward Frazier in 1992 after he was pressured to resign from the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office for undisclosed reasons.

Less than a year later, Frazier shot and killed a close friend and fellow officer during a drunken fight over a bag of corn chips at a police convention in Kentucky.

After his arrest, stories emerged about past recklessness on the job. Prosecutors say Frazier thought it was funny to reach over to other officers’ holsters and cock the officers’ 9 mm pistols while they were wearing them. He also fired his pistol on one occasion during horseplay in the police station parking lot.

North Charleston police didn’t notify the academy of those incidents, nor did they tell the state about the fatal shooting. A form the department submitted nearly two years after the shooting stated only that Frazier, who was convicted of manslaughter, had been suspended without pay for misconduct.

Consider the case of Randall Price, who continued to find work as a cop even though he had been fired from his first three police jobs.

The McCormick County Sheriff’s Office canned Price in 1999 for unsafe driving.

Wagener police dumped him a year later for insubordination.

The following year, the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office fired him after he was arrested on a criminal domestic violence charge.

After Price completed a court program that wiped the charge from his record, the Burnettown Police Department hired him. The department notified the state that it had checked the officer’s references and learned he was a ‘very good and dedicated officer.’

Or take the case of Daniel W. Blue III, who continues to find police departments willing to hire him despite a questionable professional history.

He was fired from one department; and two others, where he once worked, told the state they wouldn’t hire him back. He was accused of repeatedly using excessive force while working for Marion police, destroying a police computer while a Marion County sheriff’s deputy and failing to return from a suspension as an Atlantic Beach police officer.

Blue has since jumped to two more departments. His latest employer is the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, which told the state four years ago that Blue was not welcome to return there.

Blue declined to discuss the allegations that he used excessive force. He said the other allegations in his employment file are exaggerations.

Marion County’s newly elected sheriff, Mark Richardson, said he investigated most of the allegations against Blue and had no reservations about hiring him.

South Carolina is not alone. The same thing happens all over the country, from big city police agencies to small-town, one-officer departments.

States have varying abilities to deal with the problem. Most, including South Carolina, have the authority to take away a police officer’s certification, but enforcement varies widely.

National efforts to pool each state’s list of officers who have been stripped of their badges have been stalled for decades, with only 16 states sharing records.

South Carolina is not one of them.

State officials say they would like to participate eventually, but right now, they can’t even get some local departments to share information with them.

Local police agencies rely on the academy’s records to determine if officers they plan to hire have had problems at other departments. But those same agencies are often reluctant to tell the academy about their own troublemakers. It becomes a vicious cycle.

When departments don’t do their jobs, the whole system fails.


Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice