Whitecaps

Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Name:
Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.


Friday, July 07, 2006

Spokane's Firehouse Sex Investigation: Bungled By Ineptness or By Design?

Question: When is sexual exploitation of a 16-year-old girl by a 35-year-old married man not prosecuted in Washington State?

Answer: When the man is a firefighter employed by the Spokane, Washington, Fire Department.

Question: When is it acceptable for a Spokane Police Department detective and detective sergeant to encourage the 35-year-old married firefighter to destroy the digital images that proved his felonious exploitation of the underage girl, images it was illegal for him to make and possess?

Answer: Whenever Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker, Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession, Acting Spokane Police Chief Jim Nicks, and Deputy Police Chief Bruce Roberts say it is.

According to The Spokesman-Review staff writer Karen Dorn Steele's July 4, 2006, article headlined Police officers suspended, Spokane Police Detective Neil Gallion was suspended for two days and Detective Sergeant Joe Peterson was suspended for three days for instructing Spokane City firefighter Daniel Ross to destroy sexually explicit digital images he made of an underage girl. Those images were prima facie evidence of felonies. Deputy Police Chief Bruce Roberts claims these experienced detectives encouraged the suspect to erase them, "... to protect the victim ..." That's absurd. Police detectives do not protect crime victims by conspiring with the suspect to destroy the evidence of his crime and help him avoid criminal prosecution.

The suspensions meted out by Deputy Chief Bruce Roberts were not imposed to punish the detective and detective sergeant or to correct the detectives' mistakes. They were imposed to placate the public and blunt calls by The Spokesman-Review for formal citizens review of police actions. The Spokane mayor and police department do not want independent, diligent public scrutiny of the police department.

Recall the events in February that led to this mess. A uniformed patrol officer was dispatched to a city firehouse in response to a rape allegation phoned in by the victim's boyfriend. When the officer arrived, he determined there was sufficient information to warrant further investigation. The officer no doubt notified his dispatcher or field supervisor who, in turn, started the up-the-chain-of-command notifications that soon involved the Acting Chief of Police and the City Fire Chief.

One would have to be extremely naive to think Acting Police Chief Nicks and Fire Chief Williams didn't quickly contact the Deputy Mayor or the Mayor. The incident, an allegation that a 16-year-old girl had been raped by an on-duty city firefighter inside a city fire station while other firefighters were also in the station, was politically explosive. Spokane had only a few months earlier recalled former Mayor Jim West and elevated Dennis Hession to fill the vacancy. The city didn't need another scandal, particularly a sex scandal involving an underage girl having a sex-and-photos session inside a city fire station with an on-duty city firefighter.

Most trusting Spokane citizens would assume Mayor Hession or one of his deputies would tell the Acting Police Chief to make sure the criminal investigation of the firefighter's alleged misconduct would withstand even the closest scrutiny in the courts and the community. Put your best detectives on this. Do this by the book. Let there be no mistakes. Acting Chief Nicks would certainly communicate the message clearly to Detective Gallion and Detective Sergeant Peterson: Don't screw this one up. Yet what did they do? They screwed it up. "Bungled" was the word Mayor Hession publicly used to characterize their investigation.

Inexplicably, when the firefighter handed his camera and its memory chip to Gallion and Peterson and showed them the evidentiary images he believed proved the sex was consensual, they handed it back to the suspect and said he should delete the images. Then they watched him manipulate the camera's controls. Gallion and Peterson can only assume he actually deleted the images, because when they returned much later to the fire station to recover the camera, its evidentiary memory chip had been replaced with a different chip. The original evidence chip was nowhere to be found. Not that they looked. The Spokane Police Department says that memory chip is just so darn small, they wouldn't know where to begin looking. They didn't even bother getting a search warrant to try and find it. Consequently, the Spokane Police Department cannot be completely certain the sexually explicit images of the underage girl won't end up in cyberspace. So much for the Department's feeble excuse its detectives were protecting the victim by encouraging the suspect to destroy the evidence of his crimes.

The question is, was their investigation bungled by ineptness or by design? Did the detective and the detective sergeant, both with "exemplary records, many commendations, and no previous disciplinary incidents in their files," suddenly both go blank on what they had learned about basic evidence recognition and preservation?

It is absolutely implausible that an experienced and trained sex-crimes detective and a detective sergeant could so carelessly and badly mishandle evidence of a felony sex crime with an underage victim. Gallion and Peterson were sufficiently trained in the law to know that a 16-year-old girl could legally consent to sexual intercourse. They were shown the illegal photos by the firefighter to corroborate his assertion the victim had given consent for sexual intercourse. Even if at that point the detective and detective sergeant believed there was no probable cause to arrest for the rape allegation, they knew or should have known that the sexually explicit photos of the underage girl were evidence of a felony other than the alleged rape. Even ordinary citizens understand the concept of "child pornography." This case may have been politically complicated for the city, but it should have been investigatively straightforward for the experienced detectives.

In light of what occurred, it must be considered that Peterson's and Gallion's actions were responsive to a suggestion from superiors: Try hard to make this incident go away as quickly and quietly as possible. Gallion and Peterson tried hard.

Why would city officials want to hush up this incident or at least to control the timing and content of information reaching the public? Because the evidence clearly implicated a city firefighter, not some invisible low-level city employee who could be thrown to the wolves without much controversy. Remember, too, that at the time no one knew if any other firefighters at that station and others might also be implicated. Thus, the city would want to tightly manipulate information releases to minimize the adverse publicity. It was damage control. (If you doubt the city's inclination to control news coverage, note the Police Department's news release about the detectives' suspensions was issued on Monday, July 3, in the middle of a long July 4th weekend when local news coverage focuses on parades and fireworks.)

Police officers and firefighters are highly visible and generally respected and admired by the community. Campaign endorsements by police and fire guilds and unions are coveted by candidates for many elected offices including county prosecuting attorneys. Operating just inside the fuzzy lines of "prosecutorial discretion," incumbent prosecutors will sometimes cobble together the most unlikely interpretations of evidence to justify their not prosecuting police officers and firefighters. Controversial prosecutions of "our heroic police officers and firefighters" may cost incumbent elected officials image-enhancing endorsements and votes in the next election.

There are two indicators that would help decide if the investigation was bungled by ineptness or by design.

First, will Gallion and Peterson appeal their suspensions? After all, why would either detective accept any suspension or other punishment if they did nothing wrong? That's exactly the point: They did do something wrong, and accepting two and three days suspension without pay in exchange for not losing your job and not being criminally prosecuted is not a bad deal. In fact, given the overtime money detectives earn, the income lost from these suspensions will hardly be missed. The suspensions, additional training, and policy changes were city administration window dressing to placate the public and the newspaper.

If Gallion and Peterson had been acting on their own initiative, contrary to policy, and disobedient to lawful directions from superiors in the department, they would have been fired and possibly prosecuted. By all accounts they negligently mishandled evidence of at least one felony. They entered into an agreement with the suspect to allow him to erase that evidence and then handed the evidence over to him to allow its erasure. Those actions form the probable cause to allege a criminal conspiracy.

On the other hand, if Gallion and Peterson were acting to comply with the wishes of their superiors when they bungled the investigation, any and all police supervisors and elected officials who knew of and agreed to the erasure of the evidentiary images of the underage victim and failed to try and stop it became potentially indictable as co-conspirators.

If Gallion and Peterson were to fight their suspensions, there would be a lot of squirming when their lawyers began taking sworn depositions from departmental superiors, the Mayor, and his staff. If Gallion and Peterson were to take a serious fall, some departmental and city higher-ups would go down with them. But that's not going to happen. The two- and three-day suspensions were acceptable to Gallion and Peterson, because the alternatives were not.

Second, will the Spokane Police Guild protest the suspensions publicly and aggressively? One would expect it to unless Gallion and Peterson have told the Guild not to rock the boat. In a March 10, 2006, letter to the editor published in The Spokesman-Review, Guild vice president Dave McCabe said, "... in the strongest terms that the guild stands behind the detective and sergeant involved in the investigation of the incident involving the firefighter." If that's true, then the Guild should be leading the fight to overturn the suspensions. After all, the department shouldn't be allowed to suspend "...experienced and professional law enforcement officers" who did nothing wrong, right Mr. McCabe?

If Gallion and Peterson don't appeal and the Guild does little more than express token support for them, it can be assumed that Gallion's two-day suspension and Peterson's three-day suspension was considered a win-win solution by everyone involved. Well, maybe not everyone. We would have to know if the victim, the underage girl whom the firefighter sexually exploited, believes she came out a winner as well.

From the first reporting of this story by The Spokesman-Review, Spokane's mayor, its police department, and its fire department have been trying to compartmentalize information and control the damage. Spokane will soon have a new police chief. Spokane residents should be thankful the new chief will not be Acting Chief Jim Nicks, and they should be hopeful it will not be Deputy Chief Bruce Roberts. There needs to be a serious makeover of the Spokane Police Department starting from the top down. A new, ethical, smart, and committed chief from outside teamed with a civilian auditing authority (ombudsman, inspector general) with power to compel testimony would be a good start. The citizens of Spokane deserve it, and so does the Spokane Police Department.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Kathleen said...

Thank you for your well-written and important weblog posts, generally. In regard to the Spokane firefighter case: two things make me very sad about this case. First is the fact that things don't seem to change much within police culture, do they? I'm sure that most of the individuals involved in the investigation are decent, ordinary men in most aspects of their lives, but as we all know, something happens when they are brought together in these male-dominated institutions: men are desperate to fit in, to be one of the guys, to please their fellows, and to cover each other's transgressions, even if they know in their hearts what's right and wrong. I think this is especially true when dealing with anything having to do with sex. It takes extraordinary individuals to resist those pressures and to stand up to "the guys" when they should. There are still too few men like that in our police forces, fire departments, and military units to make much of a difference yet. (This does not mean there should be no investigation of the incident or no prosecutions and convictions. I'm only pointing out how far we have to go.)

The other thing that saddens me is that so many young women are getting themselves into these situations (if indeed, this was a consensual act). But I am not surprised when I consider our society's relentless pressure on women, especially very young women, to more or less dress and act like prostitutes. It takes extraordinary individuals to resist these pressures, too, and most teenage girls do not have the maturity and discernment to do so.

I am curious to hear more about the Spokane fire department's response to all this. While many groups and individuals dislike the police, everyone loves firefighters. They have more to lose from this type of incident than do the cops.

12:12 PM, July 07, 2006  
Blogger Lobo Solit├írio said...

Not quite my gig, nonetheless I got curious with your profile. Have you really done all thoses things you listed?

4:09 PM, July 07, 2006  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

Kathleen,

Thank you. It was mainly an HR issue for the fire department. The city investigated the HR issue, found the firefighter's misconduct to be unsuitable, and he was allowed to resign. The only problem I have with that is unless his next prospective employer does a good reference check and asks the right question of the city (e.g., Would you be rehire Mr. Ross and restore him to the position he left?), his transgressions may go undetected. Overall, the fire department seemed to effectively control the damage by handling the incident by the book. I don't think there was serious or prolonged damage to the fire department's image. There shouldn't have been.

Regardless of how the girl dressed, how she misrepresented her age on an adults only site, and how her family may have failed to supervise her properly, former firefighter Ross bears complete responsibility for his actions. He sexually exploited a 16-year-old girl. His actions were criminal; hers were stupid.

Lobo solitario,

Thanks for asking. Yes, but the jobs sound more impressive than they were. They were just jobs, occupational choices to earn a living, not callings.

6:07 PM, July 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice, but Bill, you have deleted my past posts criticizing the Kootenai County Sheriff cover up of 3..count em...3 jail suicides in the past 4 years. Dave Oliveria gives Watson a pass..perhaps because they own sheriff spokesman Ben Wolfinger.
You have deleted other criticisms concerning the Sheriff, and no doubt, this post won't see the light of day either.

8:14 AM, July 08, 2006  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for commenting. I don't always respond to comments, but I haven't intentionally deleted anyone's comments posted, including yours. If you can identify which of my posts your comments were deleted from, I'll try and find out what happened. The easiest way to identify the post you commented on is to copy the permanent link into an email message.

As I've suggested to other people, to get your message or point of view out where it is most likely to be read by more people, consider starting your own weblog. I'm definitely not trying to discourage you from commenting on my posts, but your comments will only be seen by those very few people who read my posting and any comments appended to it. I get fewer than 25 visits per day, and not all of them read what I write. I'd guess that fewer than five people per day actually completely read my daily post. That last number goes up a little bit when the post had some local interest and Dave Oliveria linked to it from his blog.

9:32 AM, July 08, 2006  

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