Above the Law, Part II
The tangled web between a renegade private security company and the Metro Police Department
By Willy Stern
NOVEMBER 1, 1999:
Pictures of Terry Smith show grotesque black-and-blue bruises covering his legs--undisputed evidence of the baton blows struck by a Metro policeman. Witnesses say the cop, Mike Mann--who was moonlighting as a security guard for the Nashboro Village apartment complex--brutally beat Smith, the building's maintenance man, without provocation as he lounged around a swimming pool with friends late at night.
"As a civilian, you'd go to jail for beating somebody like that. What gives the police the right to do it?" demanded Barry Littlefield, who joined two other witnesses in filing a complaint with the Police Department.
Two more off-duty policemen and three other guards were there that muggy evening in June 1998--all working for the private security firm Detection Services. In official statements to the Police Department's Internal Security Division, all six gave essentially the same story--that Smith was drunk and disorderly, and that he raised his fist to strike Mann after the officer told him the pool was closed. Yes, they said, Mann beat Smith as another officer held him down, but Mann used only necessary force.
The Internal Security Division found no official wrongdoing. And that doubtless came as no surprise to Larry Lawson, the owner of Detection Services. According to former employees, Lawson often bragged that he had "Internal Affairs in his pocket."
Last week, the Scene reported that security officers working for Detection Services beat, robbed, and terrorized Hispanic immigrants and other working-class Nashvillians in an 18-month rampage--all at apartment complexes the company was paid to guard. Acting with impunity, they barged into apartments, waved weapons in the air, and held guns to the heads of residents.
Police Chief Emmett Turner now has opened a criminal investigation into the allegations contained in the Scene article, which were made by 17 company employees and some three dozen Hispanics. At a news conference this week, Turner vowed to prosecute all violations of the law and "to put our own house in order."
As initial targets, he named police officers Mann, Tim Mason, John Rex Lisle, and Jason Beddoe. Mann participated in some of the illegal activities of Detection Services, and other policemen were present at times, sources have told the Scene.
"If the investigation turns up evidence that they knew of any abuse, but failed to act, they will be dealt with harshly," Turner said.
But this week, the Scene tells how the security guards got away with it for so long.
The Scene has learned that the department's Internal Security Division already has been assigned to investigate Detection Services three times because of citizens' complaints about the company or its guards. The first investigation, into the beating of Terry Smith, was whitewashed, sources say. Police claim the other two investigations are ongoing. But one of these probes has been cursory at best--Turner himself now admits that it "was not as thorough as it should have been"--and the other has been seriously compromised by an apparent leak of confidential information.
In the matter of the first investigation, the Scene has learned that after the beating at Nashboro Village, the security guards carefully coordinated their stories in statements to Internal Security, which then accepted their account of events virtually without question. One national law enforcement expert, who reviewed evidence in this case, concludes that the Internal Security investigation was "grossly deficient and extremely biased" and failed to follow widely accepted police procedures.
Why would the Police Department cover up for Detection Services? One explanation is that members of the department benefited financially from their relationship with the private company. Opened for business in April 1996, Detection Services eventually boasted contracts to provide security at more than 40 apartment complexes, as well as for events at the downtown arena--all profitable opportunities for moonlighting cops.
Of the roughly 75 people working for Detection Services in the last two years, more than 40 were Metro policemen moonlighting for extra cash. Mann is the only policeman who engaged in illegal activities, but more officers knew about the abuses--some actually witnessed them--and all looked the other way, apparently for fear of jeopardizing their off-duty jobs or embarrassing their fellow officers in the Police Department, sources say.
The Scene has also learned that two officers on Detection Services' payroll worked in the very department that was charged with investigating the private security company. They are Detective Mike Smith, an investigator in Internal Security, and Maj. Sam Sloss, that section's commander.
Sloss, in fact, was originally going to help oversee one part of the Police Department's investigation into the allegations in last week's Scene article. When Chief Turner first ordered the new probe last Thursday, he did not see fit to remove the major from the case. Police spokesman Don Aaron said at the time that Turner saw no conflict of interest.
At Turner's news conference this week, however, the chief said, "I have directed" that Sloss "not involve himself with these investigations" to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Turner also said the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, not Internal Security officers, will conduct lie-detector tests of policemen, if they are necessary during the investigation.
At the same time, Turner vouched for Sloss' honesty. "I have known Major Sloss for many, many years," the chief said, "and I do not believe his judgment has been tainted in these matters merely by his work at the arena. Nevertheless, there should be no cloud hanging over these investigations."
Turner also said in a statement to the Scene, "I do have confidence in the Internal Security section." The chief's confidence notwithstanding, evidence suggests that not only has Detection Services deeply compromised Internal Security, but the private security firm's pernicious influence has spread through the department.
* Police often "double-dipped," receiving pay from both Metro and Detection Services for work supposedly done at the same time. Staying on the Metro clock, officers routinely left their jobs up to 90 minutes early to go to work for Detection Services.
Take, for example, the Jan. 4, 1999, Nashville Predators hockey game at the downtown arena. Five of the 16 police officers who worked the event for Detection Services double-dipped illegally for an hour or more, according to the payroll records on file at the arena and at the Police Department. Among the officers double-dipping that night was Detective Mike Smith in Internal Security.
The convenient explanation is that the officers wanted to make more money, and simply left their desks early. Yet another possible explanation is that Detection Services fraudulently billed the arena for hours worked by off-duty policemen who were not actually there yet.
The Scene has learned of other instances in which Detection Services work was performed during Metro work hours. Three police officers who were the principal liaisons between Detection Services and the department--Detective Archie Spain, Detective Mike Smith, and Sgt. Mike Garafola--regularly left their police desks and went to company offices in South Nashville to perform chores while on Metro's clock, sources say.
Billy Gross, director of security at the arena, confirmed that Sgt. Garafola and Detective Spain regularly attended midweek "vendor meetings" at the arena to set up their private security gigs. Garafola also performed duties for Detection Services from his police department desk, sending dozens of faxes to the company.
When Gary Sykes, director of the Southwestern Law Enforcement Institute in Dallas, was asked to comment on such arrangements, he said such illegal activities can occur only if there is a "serious management problem" in the Police Department.
* A Metro police general order forbids the release of confidential law-enforcement information to the public. But Mann and another police officer, Detective Tim Mason, on literally hundreds of occasions used their police computers to tap into confidential files on individuals' criminal histories and driving records, according to company sources. Mason and Mann then relayed this information to Detection Services.
Once, Mann brought his laptop to Detection Services and used confidential police department files to check the backgrounds of security-guard applicants, say two company employees who were there.
Mann declined comment on this subject and all others in the Scene investigation. Mason said, "I have violated no Metro, state, federal, or local laws" in dealings with Detection Services.
Another Metro policeman appeared to use other Metro equipment to help the operations of Detection Services. Around the beginning of this year, police Sgt. Ed Mason, Tim's brother who moonlighted for Detection Services, used law-enforcement equipment to "charge up" a renegade police radio in the possession of Detection Services, company guards say. That gave the Detection Services radio the ability to transmit on police frequencies, which is against department policy. Once, the company actually sent out a transmission.
Anthony Bouza, the former chief of police in Minneapolis, says that charging up a renegade radio is "the equivalent to allowing somebody to drive your police car." He added, "That the police sergeant didn't investigate whether the [Detection Services] radio was stolen, but instead made it functional, has ethical, legal, and perhaps criminal implications."
Unauthorized transmission over a police radio is a violation of federal laws, a spokesperson for the Federal Communications Commission says.
Aaron, the police spokesman, says, however, that Mason claims he bought the charger with his own money. Aaron adds that he knows of no "state statutes" that have been broken.
* The Police Department is apparently failing to enforce its own policy prohibiting officers from having a "direct or indirect interest" in a company hiring off-duty cops. (See sidebar, "New Name, Same Game," below.)
Detection Services disbanded several months ago, as the Scene investigation into the company intensified. But many of the police officers who once worked for Detection Services are now working for another private security company, this one named Artist Security and Protection (ASAP). That company went into business at about the same time that Detection Services was beginning to fold up operations. The lucrative contract once held by Detection Services to provide security at the downtown arena is now held by ASAP.
Who owns ASAP? It's managed by Sgt. Garafola, and he says it's owned by his daughter. Garafola admitted this to the department this month only after the Scene questioned whether his relationship to the company violated department policy. Aaron, the police spokesman, says the Internal Security Division is now investigating Garafola in this matter.
Outside experts consulted by the Scene say the incestuous relationship between Detection Services and the Police Department is alarming. Sykes, the Southwestern Law Enforcement Institute director, puts it succinctly: "The Nashville Police Department has lost its vision of public service, has been corrupted by private security interests, and allows its supervisors and officers to engage in activities that are unlawful."
For most of this decade, Metro police officers were allowed to own private security firms that hire off-duty cops. But this, in addition to other aspects of the off-duty policies of Nashville's Police Department, has been the subject of controversy for some time.
In the early 1990s, the Police Department asked the Alexandria, Va.-based criminal justice think tank, the Institute for Law and Justice (ILJ), to study the police force.
The report, issued in 1993, stated: "Virtually from the day it arrived in Nashville, ILJ was aware that senior police personnel were extensively involved in outside businesses." According to the study, "Scheduling of work and appointments" inside the Police Department "always took off-duty employment into account. Outside obligations influenced the scheduling and duration even of command staff meetings."
The same report found these scheduling irregularities "vexatious," but of greater concern was "the pattern of influence created within the department." ILJ found evidence of "power to dispense economic benefits to subordinates apart from formal processes."
The report said: "Alliances are created, favors dispensed or withheld, all at the expense of the real work of the department." One ILJ consultant's research was "continually frustrated by a high-ranking officer's leaving and locking his office so he could perform his outside security work."
Former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, who left office in September, was a vocal opponent of the Police Department's off-duty policies. In November 1997, he issued an executive order banning police officers from owning private security firms that hired off-duty cops. This was followed by a police general order this year prohibiting officers from having a "direct or an indirect interest" in such companies.
Undeterred, some officers merely affiliated with established private security firms and continued their off-duty business from their Police Department desks. Says Bredesen: "We dramatically changed the policy, at least on paper, but my sense is that there are some problems and abuses."
Speaking of his apparent tug-of-war with Police Chief Emmett Turner on reforming the off-duty system, Bredesen says, "I wouldn't call Emmett obstructionist; let's just say that he didn't see the off-duty system as as large of a problem as I did."
For his part, Turner told the Nashville Scene two years ago in an extensive report into the department's off-duty policies ("Cops for Sale," March 27, 1997) that he didn't mind his policemen working for outside security companies. "We live in a free enterprise system," he said.
Last week in a written reply to Scene questions, Turner said, "I am very pleased with the new policy" instituted at Bredesen's behest. "It provides a more equitable way of filling requests for extra jobs."
Because these three Metro policemen--Detective Archie Spain in burglary; Detective Mike Smith in Internal Security; and Sgt. Mike Garafola, who runs the city's auto theft department--did not own any part of Detection Services, they could essentially operate a private security company under Detection Services' umbrella and stay in compliance with Metro policy.
"Lawson essentially had three cops who needed a shell under which they could operate," one source says. "Essentially the cops ran it as if it were their own business. They could use Detection Services' insurance, and everything else, to get security contracts. Larry Lawson's real benefit was that he could get favors out of the Police Department whenever he needed them."
Another senior officer who worked at the arena for Detection Services was Maj. Pat Griffin, commander of the Criminal Investigations Division. Griffin has responsibility for Garafola's auto theft unit in the department's chain of command.
Also working at the arena for Detection Services was another powerful member of the police force--Maj. Sam Sloss, who has run the department's Internal Security Division since 1989. It was a curious arrangement. At the arena, Detective Smith supervised Maj. Sloss. At the Police Department, Sloss supervised Smith. When complaints about Detection Services were lodged with Internal Security, things became more curious still.
Not surprisingly, Lawson, the company's owner, was elated at this turn of events. According to Ronald Crowe, who once worked for the firm, Lawson said nobody working for Detection Services had anything to worry about.
"Lawson was saying he knew people in Internal Security, and they would keep it under wraps," Crowe says, adding that Lawson boasted that Mike Smith was "his man in Internal Security," and that he could get "whatever [he] wanted" from that division.
The investigation was eventually taken from Mike Smith and given to another investigator, Lt. Percy Smith, according to the Internal Security file. This was the decision of Capt. Joe Ogg, who works under Sloss in Internal Security and routinely assigns cases to investigators for follow-up. Ogg said he was worried about an appearance of impropriety. "It does not look good," he told the Scene.
Neither Mike Smith nor Sloss would respond to numerous requests for comment from the Scene. But in an interview, Ogg dismissed Sloss' initial assignment of the case to Mike Smith as a matter of no significance. Ogg said he saw nothing wrong with Sloss overseeing the case, even while he continued to work for Detection Services. Both Ogg and Sloss signed Percy Smith's final report, which found no wrongdoing by the police officers at Nashboro Village. Ogg told the Scene that he "felt good about the report," and wasn't "going to try to defend it" to a reporter.
But in interviews with the Scene, two of those security guards who gave their accounts to Internal Security have changed their story. Speaking only on condition of anonymity, they now say Terry Smith was severely beaten without justification, just as his witnesses claim.
One guard says Larry Lawson, who was also there that night, gathered the guards outside the gate next to the pool after the beating. According to this guard, Lawson's message was clear: "Let's get our stories straight." The other guard says Mann told him later that night, "Let's go over our paperwork. Let's make sure our stories match up with each other."
And they all agreed to give the same account to Internal Security, emphasizing their claim that Smith provoked Mann by raising his fist in a threatening way--a contention emphatically denied by Smith's friends in a written statement to Internal Security.
Also in the story he told Internal Security, Mann clearly needed a way to explain the severity of Smith's beating. Unless his police baton had been fully extended to its 21-inch length, it could not have delivered such punishment. But if Mann admitted that he deliberately extended the baton, that would show he was trying to hurt Smith, not merely to subdue him. Mann decided to claim that his baton opened accidentally to its full length during the struggle.
Days later, Mann phoned one of the Detection Services employees who was filing a report to the Police Department about the beating. According to the employee, who requested anonymity, Mann suggested he write in the report that Smith grabbed the baton, which caused it to open and that Smith provoked the attack. The employee said Lawson also phoned him, telling him to mention that Mann had not opened his baton, but that Smith had caused it to open.
In its 55-page report, the Internal Security Division accepted that claim, along with the rest of the officers' story.
After reviewing a copy of the Internal Security report on the Terry Smith beating, Reiter prepared an eight-page report for the Scene, in which he pinpointed 18 specific shortcomings with the investigation.
The investigator, he said, asked no hard questions of the police officers but instead "acted simply as a report taker, rather than as an investigator searching for the truth of the matter." The investigator failed to interview key witnesses, failed to look at "obvious allegations of police misconduct," and did not challenge Mann regarding the "obvious error" in the officer's statement that the baton "opened up by itself." Reiter said this type of baton couldn't have opened "without a purposeful and exact maneuver." Also, the investigation failed to "conduct any search for disinterested witnesses," failed to "pursue known leads," and failed to obtain the Detection Services report written by Charles Grider, the first security guard on the scene.
In general, the "perfunctory" investigation into the beating of Terry Smith was "grossly deficient and extremely biased" in favor of the officers, Reiter stated. It avoided "generally accepted practices" for such investigations. The investigator, Percy Smith, "simply went through the motions" when performing his interviews and had "no apparent interest in discovering the truth"; his finding that no officer acted improperly was "a graphic example of investigative bias."
In conclusion, Reiter stated that the report was "indicative of a conscious failure to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation."
The Scene obtained photographs of Terry Smith taken three days after the beating. After seeing the pictures, Reiter noted that they "graphically depict repeated baton strikes" to Smith's "upper thighs and right upper arm." Furthermore, when Smith went to his doctor three days later, the medical report confirmed the existence of "contusions" on Smith's thighs and "bruising" that extended from his "buttocks to six inches above knees." The report also showed evidence of back pain, joint pain, and swelling.
Neither the photos nor the doctor's report was obtained by Percy Smith, the Metro investigator.
Contacted by the Scene, Smith defended his report by saying he thought the "police had the most credibility here." He said he simply did "not believe" the stories told by the witnesses who complained. Asked about Reiter's criticisms, Smith told the Scene, "I'm through talking to you. You're trying to set me up for a cover-up," and hung up the phone.
Private citizens are not allowed to transmit over police radios. Because an investigation into the incident is ongoing, police declined comment. No one has been publicly identified as the source of the slur.
Nonetheless, the man who tipped off police that Larry Lawson had a renegade radio was a former Detection Services employee who spoke to the Scene on condition of anonymity. In early May, the tipster said he approached a friend in the Police Department about what he knew. The friend put him in contact with Louise Kelton, the Internal Security investigator assigned to the case. The police officials knew the tipster's real name, but fearing retaliation from either Lawson or Lawson's many friends in the Police Department, he asked to be referred to by a code name. In future communications, Kelton would refer to him as "Scott."
Just a few days later, however, the tipster received a threatening letter from Lawson. Lawson wrote in the May 14, 1999, letter that the tipster would be "arrested for tresspassing" (sic) if he set foot on Lawson's property. More troubling than the threat, however, was the salutation Lawson wrote at the top of the letter. He addressed the tipster by his actual name, and then added the code name "Scott" in parentheses.
The tipster told the Scene he believes Lawson learned of his involvement from a leak inside the Police Department. When informed by the Scene of this, Kelton suggested that the tipster, who had told a friend his code name, may have inadverently been the source of the leak himself.
The tipster, however, strongly disagrees. "I am extremely scared of Larry Lawson and his friends in the Police Department. The leak had to come from Internal Affairs."
Reiter, the consultant, said that the "compromising" of an open Internal Security investigation, such as the leaking of a code name, is a "serious management and ethical violation and in some states, a violation of the law."
The document contended that Detection Services "is stopping alien citizens, namely of Mexican descent, and taking their cash and cars and physically beating these people."
Also, the document alleged that a police officer formerly associated with Detection Services was abusing the powers of his office to settle a private score related to his work for Larry Lawson. The letter charged that police officers were working for Detection Services while on the Metro clock. And it said that when a private citizen complained of these matters to the Police Department, she was ignored. Bredesen's office sent the letter to Police Chief Emmett Turner, who referred it to Internal Security.
Police Department spokesman Don Aaron said on Aug. 13 that "the matter remains open," since "there has been difficulty getting certain citizens who supposedly wanted to come forward and make statements to actually do so."
But last week when the Scene pressed the department again on this matter, Aaron acknowledged that investigators haven't tried to question many obvious witnesses. The anonymous document details many of the exact activities described to the Scene by 17 former Detection Services employees.
"It is now abundantly clear that the focus of the investigation was too narrow," Aaron says, "and concentrated primarily on the allegations made against Police Department employees. In hindsight, the focus should have been on the entire letter, and the Police Department should have done more."
He adds, "There was no conscious decision not to follow through. It just didn't happen. We are closely reviewing what should have been done versus what was done in an effort to make sure a similar circumstance doesn't happen again."
During his news conference Monday, Chief Turner also acknowledged, "The Internal Security investigation was not as thorough as it should have been." He claimed he didn't know of the inadequacies of the probe until "late last week."
"The allegation regarding the abuse of Hispanic individuals was not referred to our Criminal Investigations Division," he said. "In hindsight, it should have been."
Many of these former Detection Services guards, however, say they won't talk to Metro police investigators because they believe the department is "corrupt" and "dirty." They say they hope the FBI will launch its own probe.
"Without an active, fair, and open complaint system in Internal Security," that may be the only proper cause of action, says Gary Sykes, director of the Southwestern Law Enforcement Institute.
Tony Bouza, the former Minneapolis police chief, suggested bringing in the FBI, as did Jerry Gonzalez, an attorney with Griffith & Gonzalez in Lebanon, Tenn., and Mario Ramos, a Nashville lawyer specializing in Hispanic legal issues.
A former special agent for the U.S. Secret Service, Gonzalez said, "This whole thing stinks. If I were the FBI, I'd be interested."
"If Internal Affairs is dirty, you need an outside agency to get involved. This is like a Serpico situation," said Ramos, referring to Frank Serpico, the cop who exposed widespread corruption in the New York City Police Department in the early 1970s.
Bouza said this "sounds like a department out of control." Among his recommendations was to bring in a new "reform-minded" chief of police.
What would FBI agents find if they investigated the Metro Police Department? For starters, they would find a department staffed largely by honest, hardworking public servants. But they would also find a few rotten elements--rogue officers whose continuing presence threatens the integrity of the department. And they would find a police chief who historically has been willing to look the other way.
"Most of us hate this crooked stuff," says one high-ranking police officer, "but we have nowhere to turn, and even worse, we hate it that their behavior reflects on all of us."
Editor's note: In this issue, the criminal justice experts who are quoted--Anthony Bouza, Jerry Gonzalez, Mario Ramos, and Gary Sykes--were commenting on hypothetical scenarios that exactly mimicked events uncovered by the Scene. To protect them against possible lawsuits, they were not told the actual names of people or companies.
CorrectionLast week in part one of "Above the Law," we misspelled the name of Buford Tune, a former Metro police officer. We regret the error.
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