A bill before the Tennessee General Assembly could have a chilling effect on a community’s relationship with local law enforcement, according to several law enforcement officials contacted by The City Paper, among them Metro Chief of Police Ronal Serpas.
State Rep. Chad Faulkner, R-Luttrell, who is also a Knox County Deputy Sheriff, has introduced legislation that, if enacted, would require that a copy of any complaint registered against police and other law enforcement officials be shown to the person accused in the complaint prior to any investigation. The complaints would include personal information about those requesting relief.
According to Serpas, law enforcement officials are already given due process when complaints are made.
“The majority of complaints made about law enforcement officials come from a citizen’s misunderstanding of the law,” he said. “More serious complaints are investigated in concert with civil service regulations and Tennessee statutes to ensure that law enforcement officials are protected from unfounded or unsubstantiated allegations.”
Furthermore, Serpas said that no one would face suspension or termination based on an anonymous complaint. An anonymous complaint might result in a closer inspection of an officer’s behavior, but any further action would have come from a substantive investigation with evidentiary proof.
But Serpas’ larger concern was what he called the “chilling effect” a law of this nature could have on a community’s relationship with local law enforcement. Serpas said the perception created that the public can’t make complaints without fear of retaliation is damaging to the public trust.
Faulkner told The City Paper his intent in filing the legislation was to give law enforcement officials due process and not let citizen complaints linger for months on end.
“We want to work with all law enforcement communities and address these issues in the legislature,” he said.
He told the story of a former colleague in Murfreesboro who wasn’t notified for 16 months about a complaint lodged against him. By the time he was asked about the incident that resulted in the complaint, the officer had no recollection. Faulkner said his colleague ended up being suspended for three days over an event he couldn’t recall or present evidence about in his own defense.
Faulkner also stressed that he doesn’t want to discourage citizens from stepping forward when they have concerns about their community law enforcement.
A history of violence
When it comes to the violation of that trust, Serpas has firsthand experience that dates back to his time as a major in the New Orleans Police Department.
On Oct. 11, 1994, Kim Marie Groves, a resident of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, witnessed a local police officer pistol-whip a suspect in a shooting. The officer Groves saw in the beating was Sammie Williams, whose partner on patrol was Len Davis. She reported what she saw to the internal affairs division of the NOPD.
Davis was one of of New Orleans’ dirtiest cops. He was heavily involved in the drug trade, busting rival dealers and protecting ones who paid tribute to him. Davis thought if Groves’ complaint was investigated, it might end his successful moonlighting occupation.
Despite NOPD rules that were supposed to keep the complaint private until an investigation was complete, Davis found out within 24 hours that paperwork had been filed with the department.
Davis, the leader of the police drug trade, decided to handle the problem his way. He ordered a small-time dealer named Paul Hardy to kill Groves. Hardy saw it as a chance to get in good with a dirty cop, so he carried out the contract hit.
Just before midnight on Oct. 12, 1994, Hardy walked up to Groves and shot her once in the head. He was paid $300.
To the general public it was just another murder in what was then the murder capital of the United States. It was months later when the public discovered that a cop had ordered the hit. Then all hell broke loose.
Serpas said the effect of the shooting on the police department was devastating. All told, nine police officers were arrested for their involvement in the Davis drug ring. Today, Davis sits on death row at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
Most local complaints are dismissed
Kennetha Sawyers, head of Metro police’s Office of Professional Accountability, said she had some concerns over the proposed legislation as well. She said her department would be severely handicapped if it wasn’t allowed to accept verbal complaints or act on anonymous tips.
“The practice of discouraging or chilling complaints is unconstitutional because cities have an affirmative constitutional duty to protect citizens from officers who demonstrate a propensity for violence,” she said.
Her office doesn’t notify an officer of a covert investigation, she said. “In other cases, the officer is notified in seven days. If they ask for full investigation, we try to accomplish that in 45 days. Officers are typically given the name of the accuser, but they don’t have the address or phone number on the report they are handed. If it is an anonymous complaint, it would be stated.”
Most complaints against officers are dismissed, according to Metro police spokesman Don Aaron. He told The City Paper that in 2009 there were 800 documented complaints. Only 16 percent of those were found to have merit.
The number of complaints last year was actually down from 2008, when 848 were taken against police. Aaron said the percentage of valid complaints tends to hold steady.