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NEWS > 17 December 2006

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In the world of urban policing, few relationships are as fraught with peril as those between narcotics officers and confidential informants. These informants — C.I.’s in police parlance — are often small-time criminals who are paid or get criminal charges dropped in return for information about other, theoretically more dangerous criminals.

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 Article sourced from

Nashua Telegraph (subscription
17 December 2006
This article appeared in the above title/site.
To view it in its entirity click this link.


Officials: Police favoritism r

Professional courtesy is a controversial topic among police, and some of the state’s top law enforcement officials agree it may be hard to stamp out.

Officials also agree it’s uncommon in New Hampshire, although no one knows for sure.

The practice came under scrutiny in Nashua recently when The Telegraph reported officer Michael Sullivan had tried to “fix” a reckless driving citation issued to his mistress, who was involved in a fatal crash months later.

Nashua Police Chief Timothy Hefferan said Sullivan did nothing wrong in asking Londonderry police to “take care” of the woman’s ticket, but that he crossed the line by persisting after being rebuffed once. Hefferan said Sullivan was in some way admonished as a result, although personnel rules forbid him from discussing specific disciplinary actions.

Hefferan has since said he’ll draft a policy to forbid officers from trying to “fix” tickets once a ticket has been written, a policy he said is consistent with the department’s own practice for handling traffic citations. Once officers turn in their tickets, Hefferan said, they can’t take them back. People can always plead their case in court, and often do, he said.

Ticket fixing and “professional courtesy” aren’t precisely the same thing, however, and Hefferan and other officials agree there’s no way to eliminate or regulate the natural inclination of some officers to give their brethren a break.

Such professional courtesy is a longstanding tradition in law enforcement, and it’s especially strong in the northeastern United States, according to Tim Dees, a retired Nevada police sergeant and editor of the Officer.com police Web site. While

officers often disagree on the ethics, Dees said, “This is a very common practice.”

Police officers have complete discretion over traffic offenses. They can choose to ignore a violation for any number of reasons,

including having more pressing matters to handle. They can choose to stop a vehicle, and then let the driver off with a verbal or written warning, and most drivers are delighted when they do. They can also write tickets.

“Professional courtesy” takes two. The driver must in some way signal that he or she is either “on the job” or close to someone in law enforcement. Some cops will hold their tongues. Others hold their badge out the window.

The traffic cop must then decide what that bit of information means to him or her. Some officers, candid cops will admit, are disinclined to ticket other officers, or even close family or friends.

No one knows how often it happens. There’s no way to count tickets never written, and no one has bothered to study whether the police spouses, for instance, get ticketed at a rate different from the general population.

“It’s been going on for years,” Hefferan said, speaking on the practice in general, in New Hampshire and beyond. “It is longstanding. It’s a professional courtesy. It’s that brotherhood of police.”

New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte couldn’t be reached by phone, but wrote in an e-mail interview that she doesn’t believe ticket fixing is ever OK, and she endorsed Hefferan’s effort to ban it.

“The decision whether to issue a person a ticket and whether to continue prosecution of that violation should be based on the evidence that a violation occurred, including the circumstance in which the violation occurred and the violator’s record,” Ayotte wrote, adding, “The mere existence of a relationship between the violator and a member of law enforcement is not an appropriate factor to consider when making these charging decisions.

“I do not think ‘professional courtesy’ is good practice,” Ayotte wrote. “I do believe that law enforcement officers should be mindful not only of their duty to obey the law but to avoid conduct that creates a perception of impropriety.”

Ayotte and Hefferan agreed it would be counterproductive to try to regulate how officers respond to specific situations out in the streets. Police weigh many factors in deciding whether or how to charge people, Ayotte wrote, and no policy could cover all the variables, she wrote. Hefferan agreed officers need options.

“We painstakingly hire people who we think will not abuse that discretion,” he said. “We don’t want robots out there.”

Police officers are trained in ethics while at the state police academy, and that training covers situations such as “professional courtesy,” said Assistant Safety Commissioner Earl Sweeny, who is the former head of state police standards and training.

“I personally have never fixed a ticket, and never would,” Sweeney said. “It may happen, but I don’t think it’s very common here in New Hampshire. It is extremely common in some states.”

Nashua Police Commissioners, who are appointed by the governor to oversee the department, were mum on the topic of professional courtesy.

Attorney William Barry III declined to comment and referred a reporter to Chairman Thomas Maffee. Neither Maffee nor Commissioner Robert Valade returned phone calls from The Telegraph.

Ayotte declined to comment on whether ticket fixing or professional courtesy might violate the state’s “improper influence” law. The law, RSA 640-3, states it’s a felony for anyone who:

“Privately addresses to any public servant who has or will have an official discretion in a judicial or administrative proceeding any representation, argument or other communication with the purpose of influencing that discretion on the basis of considerations other than those authorized by law.”

The attorney general’s office doesn’t deal in hypothetical situations, and “whether this conduct violates the law would require a careful review of the facts of a particular case,” Ayotte wrote.

Prosecutors wield the same sort of discretion as police officers, Hillsborough County Attorney Marguerite Wageling said.

“Police use their discretion every single day, whether or not a case is going to get filed in a court of law,” she said. “They do the same sort of analysis that I do.”

Wageling said there is nothing inherently wrong with police officers asking a fellow officer to cut friends or family a break. Anyone could do the same, she said, and plenty do.

“It happens every day,” she said. “Phone calls are made every day from lawyers or people in the community to prosecutors, providing information that isn’t contained within the police reports. . . . People that aren’t connected with the prosecution make calls to the prosecution all the time.”

An officer calling another officer is no different from a defense lawyer calling a prosecutor to volunteer information on a case in hopes of influencing the outcome, Wageling said.

“Calls are put in at all different levels of law enforcement all the time,” Wageling said. “We get calls all the time from all walks of life.”

It would be inappropriate for a police officer or prosecutors to drop a case simply because it was filed against a police officer’s friend, Wageling said, but they could consider that information along with other character evidence.

“If it’s irrelevant, it shouldn’t be considered,” she said. “The mere fact that somebody is a friend or good friend would likely be irrelevant.”

Police and prosecutors would never want to be seen as acting inappropriately or unethically, so they would likely handle any back-channel requests for leniency with extreme caution, Wageling said.

“It almost backfires,” she said.

 

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