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NEWS > 17 December 2006

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 Article sourced from

Biloxi Sun Herald - MS, USA
17 December 2006
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COPS GONE WILD?

Statistics show a large increase in the number of Mississippi law enforcement officers who have crossed the line and turned to the wrong side of the law.

Since July, at least 17 officers statewide have been arrested on criminal charges. There have been five arrests in South Mississippi since 2000.

The numbers are enough to raise this question: Have cops gone wild?

Not at all, said law enforcement officials and consultants, who say the number of recent arrests is small considering the state has more than 10,000 sworn officers.

Area police chiefs agree with consultant Michael W. Quinn that arrests of cops are more noticeable now because of public involvement and media coverage. They also agree with Quinn's view that police should police themselves through stringent hiring practices, ongoing training, internal safeguards and efforts to eliminate the phenomenon known as the "code of silence."

"Since most police work independently, any cop could probably go home every night with a load of drugs if he has an approving partner or one willing to look the other way," said Quinn, a retired Minneapolis police official, author, columnist, trainer and police-ethics consultant.

"Most cops enter the profession with the intention of being the best cop they can be. But cops are human with personal problems and weaknesses like everyone else. And even the best cops can make a mistake. But those who don't have direct supervision or constant reinforcement of ethics can easily be led astray."

The larger police agencies in South Mississippi have professional standards units or internal affairs divisions that hold hearings on problems ranging from bad attitudes and citizen complaints to illegal drug involvement and excessive use of force.

Hiring practices

Stringent hiring practices are a critical precaution to weed out applicants who could be problematic. Even that isn't enough to prevent an occasional "bad apple" from joining the police force or to stop a good officer from later crossing the line.

All police agencies use drug screening and at least minimal background checks. Some conduct more extensive records checks and several agencies use psychological profiles and polygraph-type tests.

"Lying on an application is an automatic reason to not hire someone," said Biloxi Police Chief Bruce Dunagan.

"You'd be surprised at the number who left the military under less-than-desirable circumstances or had serious problems documented in their files and then claim they have no military history."

Interviews also show applicants' demeanor and attitude, said Dunagan, whose agency spends an average of three months on screening, even sending recruiters to other cities to check records.

His department, known for corrupt officers when he joined the police force in 1972, has changed many practices to make sure "we hire the best and they stay with us for years," Dunagan said.

"There's quite a few officers we've fired over the years who are now working with other police departments on the Coast," Dunagan added. "Either they didn't bother to check their backgrounds or knew and hired them anyway."

Laura McCool, Pascagoula human resources director, said the city has discussed lowering requirements for applicants to help fill vacancies created in part by Katrina.

"But if we lower our standards," McCool said, "is this (corruption) something we are going to be faced with? If we do that, we're opening the door to these kinds of problems. The rest of the city can run beautifully, but if you have a bad police department, then it lowers the integrity of the entire city."

Pascagoula decided to keep its police standards in place even though officials are having a hard time recruiting.

Many applicants just want a job and don't have the desire to embrace the profession or the standards that go with the badge, said Shannon Ferguson, Pascagoula's deputy police chief.

Gulfport Police Chief Alan Weatherford said he personally interviews every applicant.

"One question I ask is what they would do if they saw another officer doing something wrong," said Weatherford.

A recent applicant's answer was "nothing." He didn't get the job.

Of 925 police officers surveyed for a 2000 study for the National Institute of Justice, 61 percent said they don't always report criminal activity or abuse of authority by other officers.

"That's scary," Quinn said.

In his book, "Walking With the Devil: The Police Code of Silence," Quinn describes the code as "the singularly most powerful influence on police behavior in the world."

Training

The initial training and certification of law enforcement officers and ongoing in-house training are key to instilling the proper values, but there are no guarantees.

Changes have been made through the years to ensure that people selected for police work receive standard basic training, said Robert Davis of the state law enforcement training and standards board. Before a 1981 law passed, there was no mandate for training.

State law requires law enforcement officers receive 400 hours of training before they become certified. The state also requires 16 hours a year of in-service training.

Academy training includes how to deal with stress, making arrests and handling unruly or dangerous suspects as well as hostage scenarios and medical calls.

Still, Davis said, the training and pre-employment screening involved are not foolproof.

"But every occupation has its share of problems. It's the same way in every job," Davis said. "What you hope for is that the people taking these jobs are ethical and are going to do the right thing."

Training can't prepare officers for the dangers and downright disgusting situations they find on the job. A rookie officer in Gulfport who dreamed of being a cop recently resigned because he couldn't handle the mentality of people he had to deal with, said Weatherford.

Many agencies use some safeguards Quinn recommends, such as cameras in patrol cars. Biloxi police have cameras in 40 to 50 cars. Gulfport police have cameras in 25 to 30 cars. Police in Gautier, Ocean Springs and Pascagoula have a few cars equipped with cameras.

Internal affairs

Officers snap to attention when called before a professional standards unit, said Gulfport Police Lt. Kevin Raymond.

"They know we are the investigative arm of the chief," Raymond said.

Smaller police agencies, such as Pascagoula, use their criminal investigators to review allegations of inappropriate conduct or criminal activity.

Internal investigations, though, can be hindered by using in-house personnel, Quinn said.

"You might have a problem being hard on a former or future partner," Quinn said. "You may not be as objective."

Alternatives, said Quinn, could be a citizen-review board of volunteers with a strong legal or law enforcement background or an investigation by an outside agency. The objectivity of outside scrutiny is why area police officials typically ask another agency to review serious issues, such as officer-involved shootings.

Still, agencies that don't constantly stress ethics and support those who speak up about problems with other officers are going to have problems, Quinn said.

An officer brought in for an internal affairs or professional standards hearing doesn't get the Miranda Rights police recite to those they arrest. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in Garrity v. New Jersey says officers accused of wrongdoing don't have the right to remain silent when questioned by their agency's investigators.

Once an officer invokes the Garrity rule, the officer's comments can be used only in subsequent departmental hearings, not in criminal prosecution.

In departmental hearings, police officials can correct or discipline an officer for violations of rules or regulations. Criminal matters are turned over to state or federal agencies, depending on the type of crime involved.

Departmental safeguards

A look at what some South Mississippi police departments require of applicants, and the agencies' internal safeguards:

Biloxi Police Department: Drug screen, background check, psychological profile, fingerprints and polygraph. Safeguards include random drug testing, a professional-standards unit and cameras in many patrol cars.

Gulfport Police Department: Drug screen, background check, fingerprints, psychological profile and voice-stress tests. Safeguards include cameras in many patrol cars, a professional-standards unit and random drug testing in incidents involving injuries.

Gautier Police Department: Drug screen, background check, fingerprints and psychological profile. Safeguards include random drug testing after accidents with injuries and cameras in some patrol cars.

Moss Point Police Department: Drug screen, background check and psychological profile. Safeguards include polygraphs in suspicious circumstances, random drug testing after major accidents and internal-affairs division. The city is considering random drug testing for all city employees, including police.

Ocean Springs Police Department: Drug screen, background check, psychological profile and fingerprints. Safeguards include random drug testing, cameras in some patrol cars and internal-affairs division.

Pascagoula Police Department: Drug screen, background check, polygraph, fingerprints and psychological profile. Safeguards include cameras in some patrol cars. The city is considering random drug tests.


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Arrests of police officers

Five South Mississippi law enforcement officers have been arrested on felony charges since 2000. About the cases, by date of arrest:

Dec. 7, 2006 - Wendy Mason Peyregne, a Moss Point patrol officer for two years, was on duty and in uniform when FBI agents allegedly found six grams of methamphetamine in her pocket. FBI agents described her as a known drug distributor and user and charged her with possession with intent to distribute.

Police Chief Demetrius Drakeford said an undercover investigation began in October based on a citizen's tip. The city drug-tests job applicants, but a background check in 2004 didn't reveal a Mobile arrest warrant accusing Peyregne of writing $800 in bad checks. Moss Point is considering random drug tests.

Peyregne has been fired. She is in custody without bond pending resolution of the case.

Aug. 28, 2006 - Ryan Teel, a corrections officer at the Harrison County jail, was arrested on federal charges of deprivation of rights under color of law in an attempt to kill and to falsifying records in a federal investigation. He's accused in the Feb. 4 fatal beating of Jessie Lee Williams Jr., an inmate detained on misdemeanor charges. Teel has pleaded not guilty. He is in custody without bond pending a trial set for May 28. Four former jailers have pleaded guilty of conspiring to deprive rights in a criminal investigation that has gone beyond Williams' death to include a pattern of abuse at the county jail.

Nov. 30, 2005: Michael Joseph "Mike" Pechawer, with 20 years as a Biloxi police officer, was arrested for accepting bribes to refer detainees to an employee of A-1 Bonding Co. Pechawer pleaded guilty in July and received a five-year suspended sentence with three years of probation.

June 2, 2005: Darrell D. Cvitanovich Jr., a Biloxi K-9 officer with 14 years on the job, was arrested at work while undercover officers seized 11 Ecstasy tablets and methamphetamine residue from his home. Investigators said they believe he also sold drugs from his patrol car. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in October to a 15-year sentence, with 10 years suspended and five to serve.

Feb. 12, 2000 : Mark Hatfield, a Gulfport DUI officer, was off duty and drunk when he drove off the road and struck a New Orleans police cruiser, seriously injuring two officers. He was barred from police work and received a 5-year suspended sentence, three years' probation and was ordered to pay $5,000 to each of the injured officers.

 

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