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03-29-08, 12:41 AM #1
"What Were They Thinking?" Department - Dallas Fires 2 Senior Officers, Suspends Two for Harassing Homeless People With Fradulent Citations
This seems more stupid than anything else. What the hell were they thinking? - Fellow officers even filed the complaints.
Chief dismisses 2, suspends 2 after lengthy investigation of citation-writing practices
12:00 AM CDT on Friday, March 28, 2008
By TANYA EISERER / The Dallas Morning News
Police Chief David Kunkle on Thursday fired two veteran police officers who had been investigated for writing tickets in improper ways.
Senior Cpl. Jeffrey Nelson and Senior Cpl. Al Schoelen entered "inaccurate, false or improper information on citations" and engaged in an unacceptable "pattern of enforcement activity," according to police. Cpl. Nelson also used "inappropriate force" on a handcuffed woman and had people sign blank citations.
Chief Kunkle said the officers weren't fired for specific incidents, but for a pattern of "activity that we as a department think is inappropriate." He declined to comment further.
A third patrol officer, Senior Cpl. Timothy Stecker, was suspended for 10 days after investigators concluded that he had also had people sign blank citations. A supervisor was suspended for five days.
Haakon Donnelly, an attorney for the three patrol officers, said the investigation was a "witch hunt" and said the three patrol officers will appeal.
"The decision is wrong across the board," Mr. Donnelly said. "The disciplinary action should be overturned."
The investigation found that Cpls. Nelson and Schoelen arrested vagrants, prostitutes and other habitual offenders while also writing them citations that were to be mailed at the same time. Many of these people did not have stable addresses.
The department has since made a procedural change that requires supervisors to approve mailed citations.
Cpls. Nelson and Schoelen were also issuing tickets to people under more than one name at the same time.
Pleased with firing
Among those made to sign blank citations by Cpls. Nelson and Stecker was R.B. Barton, who has been homeless and now lives at a motel, doing odd jobs in the East Dallas area where the officers worked.
He said he was pleased with the firing of Cpl. Nelson, but unhappy that Cpl. Stecker is keeping his job.
"One of these days if he goes back on the street, what's going to happen when I run into him?" he asked.
Chief Kunkle said he has not decided where Cpl. Stecker will be assigned after his suspension is completed.
Sgt. Walter Clifton, who supervised the officers at various times, was suspended after internal investigators concluded that he acted improperly when he instructed officers to make up occupations on citations. He could not be reached for comment.
Sgt. Clifton told investigators he wanted patrol officers to obscure the fact that people were homeless because he believed municipal court judges would not issue arrest warrants on unpaid citations if they thought a person was transient. [probably a valid point, but... ]
Chief Kunkle's disciplinary decisions come more than a year after internal investigators began looking into the activities of the three patrol officers.
For years, Cpls. Schoelen, Nelson and Stecker had worked the overnight shift in Old East Dallas with the strong backing of supervisors. They had received glowing reviews for their work dealing with habitual offenders in the area.
"These are excellent officers who were out there every day working with the lowest common denominator ... in an area that needed enforcement," said David Schiller, a former Dallas police officer and an attorney representing the trio in a lawsuit against the city.
The investigation began after another officer claimed that they had lied in police reports and made false arrests.
About the same time, another officer told police commanders that Cpl. Nelson had attacked a woman in August 2006 after she had been arrested for public intoxication and was handcuffed, sitting in a police car on Fitzhugh Avenue.
During the investigation, Cpl. Stecker told investigators that he allowed Mr. Barton to sign blank citations as a "courtesy."
Cpl. Nelson also told investigators that he allowed some people to sign blank citations as a courtesy.
Scott Henson, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Police Accountability Project in Texas, said having someone sign a blank citation shows a pattern of behavior that says the "ends justifies the means."
"That's just megalomaniacal," Mr. Henson said of having someone sign blank citations. "That's police officers who think they're just in charge of these people's lives and can decide at their leisure down the line what they will accuse them of." Mr. Henson, who now writes Grits for Breakfast, a blog that focuses on Texas criminal issues, said the chief's decision to discipline the officers was a "good start because it lets officers know that the chief takes" that type of conduct seriously.
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