How Seattle cops failed to police their own
Dozens of Seattle police officers have worked off-duty security jobs at nightclubs and bars in recent years, repeatedly violating department...
Seattle Times staff reporters
Dozens of Seattle police officers have worked off-duty security jobs at nightclubs and bars in recent years, repeatedly violating department rules while their supervisors looked the other way.
The officers, working in police uniforms, sometimes put club owners' interests ahead of their duty to protect the public, a Seattle Times investigation has found.
Some failed to help people injured in fights just outside bars, while others didn't file police reports after learning of crimes.
One officer repeatedly stored confiscated drugs in his personal locker instead of logging them into the police department's evidence room. Another, in his off hours, was found intoxicated and lying near a street with his badge and gun visible, yet he was allowed to later work off duty at clubs. A third co-owned and managed a bar so notorious for criminal activity that the police department and neighbors attempted to shut it down.
Department rules prohibit off-duty work at liquor establishments because it can put officers in the middle of illegal or improper activities, testing their loyalties. But at least 48 officers worked for nightclubs and bars during a two-year period that ended in November 2004, according to a Times analysis.
Club owners and music promoters paid the officers to handle crowd control, defuse brawls and monitor parking lots outside the bars, including the trendy Club Medusa in Belltown and the Tropicana 21 in an industrial strip of South Seattle.
The Seattle Police Department adopted new rules in December and April to regulate off-duty work by officers. The changes came in response to misconduct by officers who were working at nightclubs and bars despite a previous ban. Officers now may accept off-duty security jobs outside nightclubs and bars, but only when two or more clubs form a business association that meets strict conditions. Under the new rules:
Officers must specify on permit applications whether members of the business association will be serving alcohol, and whether the officers will be in uniform.
Officers must perform routine law enforcement and stay outside the business unless responding to a specific problem. They may not stand at the door or use a private communication system.
Business associations must pay by check, provide liability insurance for officers and cooperate with internal police investigations if problems arise.
Business associations must not ask officers for special privileges or interfere with officers' responsibilities to the public.
Business associations must make sure officers keep an activity log and coordinate their activity with an on-duty sergeant.
Source: Seattle Police Department
Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske acted late last year to gain some control over off-duty work problems, but only after an FBI investigation and resulting news coverage. As a result, the department says, no officer has worked for a club since then.
But Kerlikowske's approach, imposing stricter regulations on off-duty work, will succeed only with tough enforcement — something that, for years, was lacking.
"It was a loose system," Kerlikowske said, admitting problems should have been caught earlier. "There wasn't a level of scrutiny and inquiry as to where they were working and what they were doing."
Kerlikowske stressed that the majority of officers who work off duty never have problems.
The Times, examining permit applications for all types of off-duty jobs, found hundreds of incomplete and deceptive applications that were approved despite a requirement that three supervisors review every one.
Applications must be completed for all side jobs, including security work and traffic control at construction sites and sporting events. More than half the city's 1,280 officers worked off duty during the two-year period, supplementing their regular pay, which for patrol officers can range from $46,000 to $65,000.
Some officers who worked for nightclubs hid the violation by listing fake business associations as their off-duty employers.
Five officers were approved for off-duty work even though they had been disciplined for past misconduct while working at clubs, a factor supervisors are supposed to consider.
Of 3,326 permit applications reviewed by The Times, supervisors denied only 12.
Abuses of off-duty work rules went on for years, even as citizens, internal investigators and the FBI raised red flags.
In 2001, a citizen saw an officer possibly sniffing cocaine under the Alaskan Way Viaduct and reported the scene to police, triggering the FBI investigation.
Independent of that investigation, the police department had received other complaints that officers were breaking rules while working off duty at clubs.
The police department's own Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates allegations against officers, raised concerns in 2003. And a civilian auditor in charge of reviewing internal investigations warned last year that officers working off duty at nightclubs had put themselves in situations that posed conflicts of interest.
The department's new rules still ban work for individual nightclubs. But the rules allow officers to work off duty for approved business associations composed of nightclubs. Associations must abide by strict terms, such as acquiring liability insurance for the officers and cooperating with internal investigations if problems arise.
Kerlikowske said that even before adopting these changes, the department had recognized problems with off-duty work in the fall of 2002. He said it took two years to negotiate the changes with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild.
But during those two years, officers continued to get approval to work at nightclubs.
Kerlikowske said last week that he was surprised at the number of officers who had worked at clubs and that he was unaware they had used at least eight fake business associations as fronts.
"If they made it up and filed a false report," he said, "we will investigate it and we will discipline them for it."
Detective helped run bar
For months on end, police battled drug dealing, shootings, fights and alcohol violations inside Deano's Cafe and Lounge in Seattle's Central Area, while one of their own veteran officers was helping run the bar.
Detective Gene McNaughton ran Deano's at the time the police department was trying to shut it down, citing 29 incidents in one 18-month period in a letter to the State Liquor Control Board in July 2002.
The liquor board had earlier discovered that McNaughton frequently managed Deano's and had partly financed it with his brother, the co-owner.
The Deano's case, and others like it, illustrate what can happen when officers work off duty at bars.
McNaughton's role in Deano's is detailed in documents The Times obtained under a public-disclosure request. However, the police department declined to disclose his name and the names of officers disciplined in other cases. Through interviews and other public records, The Times learned their names.
In April 2002, the liquor board issued a written warning to Deano's for not listing McNaughton's name on its business license. The board later ordered McNaughton not to be involved with Deano's anymore. But he kept working there, and the board ultimately turned over its findings to Seattle Police Department internal investigators.
Police investigators concluded that "regardless of whether or not the named employee received monetary compensation ... the named employee clearly engaged in activity that was a conflict of interest and permitted criminal activity to flourish." (Read the report)
They also found that McNaughton had hampered a police investigation in June 2002 just outside Deano's, interrupting two Seattle officers who were questioning a convicted felon involved in suspicious activity. McNaughton had walked the female suspect away from the interview, telling the officers the woman was with him.
The department suspended McNaughton for 30 days in May 2004 and demoted him for conduct unbecoming an officer and for violating off-duty employment policies.
McNaughton, now a patrol officer, said he's confident he will win an appeal of the discipline.
Deano's is now under new ownership.
In a second case, Officer Jonard Legaspi was reprimanded in 2003 for not helping a woman who was severely assaulted while he was working off duty at Maritime Pacific Brewing Co. near Ballard. Police records say the woman's husband brought the female suspect to Legaspi and asked for help, but Legaspi led the suspect away without gathering any information from her. The couple reported that Legaspi told them to call 911 if they wanted to press charges.
Internal investigators found that Legaspi's obligation as an officer should have come before his responsibilities to his employer, and that he "should have, at a minimum, interviewed and identified all parties ... and ensure an incident report was written."
Legaspi didn't return phone calls.
The same report also questioned why a sergeant, lieutenant and captain approved Legaspi's work for the bar, noting that throughout the department, "approval and disapproval is not consistently applied." Kerlikowske ultimately reprimanded Legaspi for violating off-duty employment rules.
Another case involved an officer who, on at least four occasions, mishandled drugs and paraphernalia he had confiscated while working at large music parties between 1998 and 2002. The officer, Todd Harris, stored the items in his personal locker for up to weeks at a time instead of logging them into the tightly controlled property room. Department policy requires officers to submit evidence no later than the end of a shift — a strict rule designed in part to ensure that drugs aren't lost, stolen or sold.
Police records show that Harris told investigators he was too tired to immediately log the items, then forgot the drugs were in his locker. He later booked them into the property room along with other seized drugs.
Harris, who received a 10-day suspension, declined to comment.
Some allegations never came to the department's attention.
Several music promoters told The Times that officers sometimes did little to handle volatile situations, often just standing outside the club or near a street corner.
Former promoter Randy Parker said he was assaulted after a party at the Rock Salt nightclub on Westlake Avenue North.
When Parker left the club around closing time on Sept. 6, 2003, he saw one officer smoking and another standing very close to a woman, he recalled.
As he reached the parking lot, about 40 feet from where the officers were standing, several men began yelling at Parker. Minutes later he was stabbed in the back with a knife.
Parker said the officers came to the scene only after an ambulance had arrived to help him and a woman who was injured during the fight.
"I was so put out by the lack of police protection," he said. "I don't think they should work off duty and collect dues with no intention of protecting you or the public."
A police report shows two officers were working off duty at the time of the attack, but doesn't identify them. Parker, who moved to California, didn't file a formal complaint and the two officers were not investigated for violating off-duty policies by working at the Rock Salt.
How rules were skirted
Officers were able to work at places such as the Rock Salt and Maritime Pacific Brewing Co., despite the department's ban on working at bars, because supervisors failed to scrutinize applications for off-duty work.
The police department's manual requires any officer seeking an off-duty job to state on a permit application the name of the prospective employer, the type of business, a work phone number and address, the number of hours per week they would work, the start and end dates for the job and the expected duties.
The permit states that any application containing general descriptions such as "various security" will be denied. However, The Times found more than 700 instances in which officers used the words "varies" and "various" on permits, and all were approved.
For example, Officer Brian Hope got permission in 2003 to work for the Belltown Business Association, a collection of nightclubs unrelated to the long-standing merchants group by the same name, despite the fact that his application left blank the type of business he would be working for, the work phone number, the number of hours he would work per week and the date the job would end.
Five officers obtained permits to work at Polly Esther's nightclub, near the Experience Music Project, after some wrote on their applications that no alcohol would be served. Yet the club's manager said alcohol was served on some nights they worked.
Dozens of officers got approval by listing phony business associations that hid their off-duty work at bars.
The Times found eight associations that were listed on officers' permits but weren't registered with the state or city as businesses or neighborhood organizations.
The former general manager of Polly Esther's, Sara Kent, said one of the officers who worked there, Sgt. Mario Navarrete, encouraged her to form a business association because officers couldn't work directly for clubs. She never did it, she said, because neighboring businesses didn't support the idea.
Nevertheless, Navarrete and two other officers listed either the Harrison Street Business Association or Harrison Street Merchants Association as their employer when they actually were working for Polly Esther's, which has since closed.
Navarrete, 53, didn't return phone calls for comment.
In another instance, six officers claimed on applications to be working for the North Belltown Business Association, but Officer David Hockett confirmed that the association really was the Downunder, a nightclub. He said he couldn't recall who thought up the bogus organization.
The Downunder's owner, George Foster, said he was never part of the North Belltown Business Association. "I don't know how I would be," he said. "I don't know what that is."
Foster said he hired off-duty officers to work four-hour shifts at the club, paying each of them $160 a night. "They're there so when people are unruly, cops can kick them out or arrest them."
The Times attempted to contact police supervisors who had approved questionable off-duty permits. Of five supervisors who were reached, three declined to comment, one said she did deny some permits, and one said only that he followed policies.
Officers' history of discipline
Supervisors are supposed to consider work performance when they review permit applications, but they allowed several officers to continue working off duty despite a history of disciplinary problems.
Ernest Hall's personnel file lists nine disciplinary actions for the 21-year veteran. Three of those were related to off-duty work, including one for using unnecessary force when he choked and threatened to kill someone.
Most recently, Kerlikowske reprimanded Hall in 2002 for failing to investigate and file an incident report on an alleged assault and theft of a purse while he was working off-duty security.
Hall was denied some permits after his discipline, but he also got approval to work off duty at Tommy's Nightclub & Grill, the Rock Salt and the Showbox, through music promoters and phony business associations.
Among those who hired Hall was Parker, the promoter stabbed outside the Rock Salt. Parker recalled paying Hall and each officer in his crew up to $800 for one night of work.
"It's a necessary evil," he said. "It's a standard procedure to go through Ernie [Hall] to get officers. You got to pay to play."
Catwalk Club co-owner Arman Badri said he turned to Hall more than any other officer because "he defuses problems."
Hall last worked at the club about a year ago, Badri said.
Hall said he was confident he had obtained permission to work at the clubs, even though permits for all of them could not be found. "Sometimes they get lost in the shuffle," he said.
Hall said he was unsure if he had violated department rules. "I haven't looked at the manual for a while," he said.
Hall acknowledged several music promoters turned to him to organize off-duty work at clubs. He dismissed the department's anxiety about off-duty work, saying, "A lot of their concerns are balderdash."
In the case of Officer Chad McLaughlin, supervisors approved his off-duty work even though his personnel file contains multiple reprimands for misconduct in 2000-01, including an incident in which he used his gun barrel to scrape the tongue of a man he thought had swallowed drugs.
Three incidents involving McLaughlin are described in internal investigative reports: During his off time, fellow officers found him intoxicated and lying near a Fremont street at 4:35 a.m., with his badge and gun visible. In another instance, he crashed a Seahawks press conference, where he was intoxicated and repeatedly interrupted Coach Mike Holmgren until he was kicked out by a fellow officer. He also led two officers on a chase one night, wearing a Halloween costume of a toy gun and holster and riding a motorcycle. One of the officers feared McLaughlin was a threat and drew his weapon.
Internal-affairs investigators recommended that McLaughlin be fired in 2001. But Kerlikowske offered McLaughlin a "last-chance agreement" in which the officer was suspended for 30 days and ordered to avoid similar misconduct, attend a treatment program and be tested for alcohol and drugs.
That didn't stop McLaughlin from working off duty at two Belltown nightclubs in 2003.
McLaughlin, 34, said he doesn't see a problem with working at clubs, adding that his regular duties also put him near bars. He declined to discuss the matter further.
In approving the permits, a supervisor noted that McLaughlin had "excellent work performance."
Guild, owners defend practice
The Seattle Police Officers' Guild and some music promoters and club owners defend the practice of hiring off-duty police, saying it helps keep the public safer.
Dave Lyon, general manager of Club Medusa, said the officers he hired walked the streets around the club, monitored parking lots and used private radios to communicate with security guards inside.
"We would have people get in an altercation inside, we'd get them outside and they would bother patrons," he said. "Instead of calling 911 to take them away, it was easier to talk to a cop to take care of them."
When officers don't report crimes at a nightclub, the club appears to be less of a problem spot.
But taking shortcuts like that can put officers and the public in danger, said Assistant Seattle City Attorney Tamera Soukup, a liaison to the police department's downtown West Precinct.
"You take the risk of the officer's loyalties going to a nightclub as opposed to it being for the public," Soukup said. "If you see a police officer in uniform, you would be under the belief that they were working for SPD at the time, and in actuality they are not — they are working for a private club."
Kate Pflaumer, a former U.S. attorney and now the police department's civilian auditor in charge of reviewing internal investigations, has highlighted problems with officers working for nightclubs.
In one case, she wrote last year, "their arrival turned a pushing match into a full-fledged melee where the violence escalated."
Elsewhere, policies vary
King County Sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart said deputies in his department aren't allowed to work at establishments whose primary purpose is selling alcohol.
"If someone tries to subvert the reason behind the policy — trying to get fancy or use semantics — their work permit will be denied," Urquhart said, adding that rural King County has few nightclubs.
Bellevue Police Chief James Montgomery said his 180 officers "aren't even tempted to ask." Montgomery must personally approve each permit.
Policies vary across the country. Los Angeles and Minneapolis allow off-duty work outside of clubs, to augment regular patrols. New York and Chicago prohibit it entirely.
"It creates an inherent conflict of interest," said Chicago police spokesman David Bayless. "Liquor establishments ... are the subject of more licensing scrutiny and more law-enforcement scrutiny. And to ask our officers to work in those establishments, when they are certainly of concern to the police, would be a conflict."
In Houston, where the work has been allowed, prosecutors accused five off-duty officers of taking money from bar owners to overlook drug use, prostitution and underage drinking. All five were charged in 2003 with engaging in organized crime, but pleaded guilty to lesser offenses.
A look ahead
Seattle police investigators are examining the conduct of four officers, including one who resigned before he could be questioned.
That internal investigation addresses some of the same allegations examined by the FBI's Public Integrity Task Force. The FBI looked into whether officers, on and off duty, had used illegal drugs, associated with criminals, carried out favors for strippers and overlooked liquor-law violations. After a four-year investigation, prosecutors decided they did not have enough evidence to file criminal charges, but the FBI early this year turned over detailed information to the police department.
In the next three months the investigation is expected to conclude, with Kerlikowske having the final say on any punishment.
Meanwhile, Seattle police officials and club owners say officers haven't worked at clubs since late last year, when news stories about the FBI investigation forced the department to act.
At a meeting, the department told commanders and supervisors to review permits more diligently.
The department then implemented its new rules on off-duty work, which allow two or more clubs to form a business association to hire officers. So far, no nightclubs have applied.
Nightclub operators have had to adapt. Club Medusa, for example, has hired two additional security guards.
Steve Good, the club's owner, said he would be interested in hiring off-duty police again because "police presence outside the clubs is a huge plus."
Good said he hadn't seen the new rules and needed to study them.
If associations do form and employ police, it will test whether officers can follow simple rules and whether the department will enforce them.
Times reporter Mike Carter and researcher David Turim contributed to this story.
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