Deputies Gone Wild
At a holiday party thrown by the Lane County Sheriff deputy union, off-duty male officers allegedly grabbed women's breasts and buttocks, harassed women, drank until they threw up and passed out, cursed at bartenders and over microphones, were naked in hallways, had fights and tried to intimidate people from complaining, according to hundreds of pages of documents from an internal sheriff's investigation.
"Wow, those cops really party it up," a female deputy said during the investigation of the Lane County Peace Officers Association (LCPOA) party on Dec. 14, 2001 at the Doubletree Hotel in Springfield. The party was attended by about 120 people, including many guests from outside the Sheriff's Office and members of other local law enforcement agencies, according to investigators.
Just emerged reams of documents from a party-related case before the Oregon Employee Relations Board (ERB) provide a rare look into the secret world of how law enforcement officers are and are not held accountable for their conduct. The party sparked a three-month investigation, a legal battle between the county and union that stretched until this year and, ultimately, largely unsuccessful efforts to discipline four deputies for misconduct.
The revelations about the alleged sexual harassment at the party come at a time that local law enforcement faces increased scrutiny of their treatment of women in the wake of sexual abuse charges against two Eugene officers. The massive internal party investigation and litigation involving hundreds of hours of staff time, 69 interviews and a private consultant, also comes at a time when sheriff officials complain they lack the funding and manpower to keep the county safe.
Although local police use mass arrests and undercover officers against rowdy campus parties and routinely charge locals for drunk and disorderly conduct, assault and sexual harassment, no criminal charges were filed for misconduct at the party, despite the large numbers of sworn law enforcement officers present.
Throughout the investigation, sheriff officials emphasized the importance of officer conduct rules designed to uphold the department's reputation. With a tarnished reputation, citizens may not trust officers enough to support them with higher taxes, believe them on the witness stand, want to help them solve or prevent crimes and may fear them carrying guns.
Sheriff Jan Clements confirmed an "extensive" investigation of the party occurred. He said discipline was imposed on more than one deputy, but declined to provide details. He said the investigation and discipline did create some tension in the department. Some people were left "with their nose out of joint," but "there are other people that are applauding," Clements said.
Rhonda Fenrich, attorney for the Deputy union, did not return a call requesting comment.
But in testimony before the ERB, Fenrich denounced the county's "overblown view of what occurred [at the party], you know, the Tailhook," she said, referring to a Navy flyer party in 1991 in which 83 women were assaulted.
Fenrich complained the county spent "hours and months" on a "fishing expedition" to investigate false rumors of misconduct from the party.
On the other side, Assistant County Counsel David Williams argued that most of the initial rumors of a "mini-Tailhook experience" at the party turned out to be serious misconduct. The evidence shows the "rumors have more truth than fiction in them."
One stumbling drunk deputy at the party allegedly became a particular menace, according to investigator accounts of witness interviews. The deputy spilled his beer on the shoulder of the evening gown of another deputy's wife, who had turned her back in an effort to avoid him. Later, the deputy approached the woman again while she was dancing with a female friend. The deputy allegedly came up behind and wrapped both his arms around her shoulders in an embrace. The woman knocked him away, and the drunk deputy fell on the dance floor. In the process, the drunk deputy again spilled his beer all over the front of the woman. The woman told investigators she had, "never felt so violated and humiliated in my life ... I just can't explain how frustrated I felt."
At one point in the party, the drunk deputy had allegedly proposed a wife "swap" for the evening to the woman's deputy husband. "Those are fighting words to me," remarked a guest who overheard the offer. The sheriff's investigator noted that such a swap offer "is likely to provoke a violent response from most husbands/or boyfriends."
Investigators later heard that one deputy was looking for the drunk deputy later at work. He wanted to "kick his ass" for spilling the beer all over his wife. "There were impacts on the workplace that fortunately did not blow up, but they were very real," county attorney Williams said.
The same drunk deputy also allegedly reached over the back of a female deputy and grabbed her breasts. "She immediately removed his hands by grabbing them and thrusting them outward from her breast area," an investigator found. The deputy said she was left "embarrassed and humiliated" and "angry" from the incident.
A bartender in the hotel lounge refused to serve the drunk deputy more alcohol after he used foul language. The female bartender alleged the deputy then called her an "asshole" and said "fuck you."
Later, the deputy went into the party room and continued to drink and cause problems. The bartender at the beer stand there told deputies who organized the party that the drunk couldn't drink more and they would have to get him under control or he would shut down the beer stand. When nothing happened, the bartender then refused to serve anyone.
Later, party goers allegedly put the "passed out drunk" deputy naked into a hotel room bed with another naked passed out female deputy and took a picture.
The deputy told an investigator that he ended up vomiting throughout the night to the point of "dry heaves." In a transcripted interview, the deputy said he was so intoxicated he didn't remember many things, but he denied violating officer ethics. "I don't think I did anything wrong. I mean, the bartender cut me off, and yeah, I said, you know what's up with this or what the fuck's up with this ... or, something to that effect to the point where she says you need to leave the bar, so I left the bar. That to me is yeah, good self restraint ... . There was no scene, there was no police called, there was no bouncers that had to throw me out, there was no, nothing that happened that, no criminal acts happened, no nothing happened that was out of line or out of control in anything that I ever did throughout the night except for apparently I spilled beer, which was an accident, on [a deputy's wife]."
The deputy said his wife did take a picture of him asleep naked in bed with a naked sleeping female deputy. But, contrary to rumors, the deputy said the picture was never circulated throughout the Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff managers suspended the deputy for six days as punishment for violating rules against off-duty conduct that embarrasses the department. Union attorney Fenrich appealed the discipline complaining that the investigation was without just cause, ignored exculpatory witnesses, preconceived guilt, lacked due process and violated labor law by investigating an "Association team-building event." Nobody complained before the sheriff launched his investigation, Fenrich wrote. "The department has created 'victims' where none exist."
Last December, Fenrich's firm reported in its client newsletter that a labor arbitrator had overturned the six-day suspension and replaced it with a written reprimand. The arbitrator reportedly found that the county lacked the formal written complaint required in its labor contract before it began its investigation of the party.
GROPING & STALKING
Another male deputy was accused of groping and stalking a female deputy until she was forced to leave the party.
The female deputy was a reluctant witness, according to an account of an interview with her by a sheriff's lieutenant. She said she was new to her job and "concerned about future reprisal due to her probationary status." The lieutenant told her no one would be able to harass her because of what she said and ordered her to answer questions.
The woman "began to turn red in the face" when she described what happened, the lieutenant wrote. She was dancing with female friends at the party when the drunk male deputy worked his way between. She alleged, the man "kept bumping and grinding into" her body. When she tried to step away, the male deputy would "would follow and 'grab me again,'" according to the lieutenant's account. She alleged the deputy would hold her close and "his hand slid up and down my butt." The lieutenant wrote, "she was extremely uncomfortable with his behavior."
The woman said the deputy followed her around the party making "offensive" pick-up lines for the next hour, leaving her "very apprehensive." The woman alleged she tried to dance with somebody else to get away from him, but the deputy "would follow [the woman] and dance right behind her, bumping his body into the backside of her body."
The woman said the deputy's behavior upset her to the point that she was forced to leave the party. She compared it to being "stalked." As she left, the deputy followed her out. She was concerned, but the deputy stopped to talk to friends coming in and she slipped away.
The woman said she didn't file a complaint because she "would rather avoid confrontations." She told the lieutenant that in the future, "she would be uncomfortable around [the stalker deputy], and if she was put in a position to have to be in a patrol car with [him], she would decline." If he came to another party she was at, the woman said she would leave.
The male deputy also allegedly reached into the breast cleavage of the mother of a female deputy and grabbed a small camera tucked between her breasts. "He scooped right in and grabbed camera and everything," said the mother. The mother told investigators, "I opened up my arms and said 'here you go,' showing where the camera was between my breasts." The mother said at a later hearing that the sheriff's investigation into the incident was unwarranted. "It was no big deal, I had a low cut blouse on ... .It was whoosh-snatch and it is over with."
Another deputy told investigators that the mother "was visibly intoxicated and characterized as loud, uninhibited and openly hostile toward the [sheriff's department] administration" at the party. Investigators wrote that they remained unclear exactly what happened. "Did [the deputy] simply 'pluck' the camera from the exposed area of [the mother's] dress or did he in fact reach into the actual bra to retrieve it?"
The deputy daughter of the mother told an interviewer that after the camera snatch, her mother "raised her eyebrows at [her] and said, something to the effect of, 'What in the hell just happened here?'" But she said her mother wasn't upset. "Are you kidding? It's not like we see things like that, plus he was really drunk."
The deputy's daughter told investigators she had a "very differing view of inappropriate conduct than the general public." The female deputy described a dance she had performed with others at the party, an investigator wrote. The female deputy "stated she did do a YMCA movement and showed me the movements. For the 'Y' she V'd her fingers around her lips while flicking her tongue in and out of her lips, for the 'M' she outlined her breast with her index fingers, for the 'C' she made a C with her hands around her pubic area and for the 'A' she patted her buttocks." The female deputy said she "did not feel the gestures were inappropriate" and asked the investigator who had complained about them so she could apologize.
Investigators gave the male deputy accused of stalking, groping and the camera snatch punishment of two days leave without pay, a written reprimand and an "alcohol assessment." A supervisor reprimanded the deputy that his conduct was "unbecoming of a Lane County sheriff's deputy, and it brought disrepute to the Lane County Sheriff's Office." The deputy's treatment of women at the party "contradicts any acceptable standard of behavior for law enforcement professionals. Peace officers are expected ... to protect individuals from such acts of offensive contact." The reprimand warns that any future misconduct would result in more discipline "potentially including termination."
It's unclear whether the discipline imposed actually was carried out. Other disciplinary action from the party was modified or revoked during legal appeals. The deputy denied the allegations of stalking and harassing and said he didn't recall the camera snatch. He offered witness deputies who said he did not appear drunk to the point of losing control.
A fight allegedly broke out between deputies and a deputy's male relative invited to the party as a guest. A deputy told investigators that he and three other deputies went to the union president's hotel room and banged on the door. "When he answered the door he was nude." The group stood in the hall laughing and talking when the relative came out of an adjacent room and tackled one of the clothed deputies. The two men struggled and the deputy got the relative into a leg hold and after talking to him let him go. The relative then stood and looked at another deputy and "asked him what was funny, grabbed him around the waist, lifted him off the ground and beat him against the wall three times. [The deputy] got tired of being hit against the wall, so he punched [the relative] in the face once." The relative was wrestled to the ground and after some yelling at him, the man left the scene, according to investigators.
Later at an ERB hearing, county attorney Williams said, "There was a deputy naked in a hallway who participated in breaking up a wrestling match between a deputy and a guest at the party, when one of them got knocked into a wall. The evidence will support that."
Despite the alleged assault, the five deputies present took no apparent action to have the relative, or anyone else, arrested.
The relative was "later evicted" from the hotel by private security "for continued misbehavior and vandalism," according to investigators. That and "disorderly conduct at nearby dining establishments" resulted in a call to the Springfield police.
Williams also said "there was a challenge, maybe a fight" between a non-deputy guest at the party and youth hockey team members. "The police were called."
A female deputy told investigators that her husband worked as a Springfield officer and heard about the police call, supposedly from the relative's girlfriend who wanted the drunk man taken in for alcohol treatment. The Springfield officer heard "that Lane County had a party that had gotten out of control. Springfield had been called to respond." Springfield's on-duty sergeant "had his dispatcher call LCSO [Lane County Sheriff's Office] since it was their deputies who were involved and the Sheriff's Office should respond."
After the party, when deputies began discussing the wild event at work, the leaders of the deputy union tried to intimidate other deputies from complaining about what happened, investigators alleged.
The union president was the brother of the drunk deputy accused of repeatedly spilling beer on a woman, groping a woman's breasts and cursing a bartender. The union president allegedly falsely warned a group of deputies gathered for a shift briefing that they could be punished for "malicious gossip" regarding the party. He also allegedly falsely told the deputies that they could not be punished for what happened at the party as it was an off-duty union function.
The union president, his deputy brother and another union board member called one deputy who had said he planned to ask for an investigation. The three callers allegedly said that "malicious gossip" charges would be filed against him if he kept talking about the party and asked him to stop. Investigators reported the deputy told the three callers that he wouldn't remain quiet and "took pride in his association with the Sheriff's Office and resented the negative impact on public opinion of the Department."
The deputy told investigators that he "felt the message from the [union officials] was clearly, 'You are taking a stance we don't like and you need to chill out. If you don't, we will proceed with charges of malicious gossip, and you will be in deep trouble.' By trouble the implication was 'Is this worth your job?'"
Investigators reprimanded the union president and the board member for giving "misleading and erroneous" information about being punished for malicious gossip and not punished for conduct at the party and for trying to intimidate the complaining deputy.
The "intimidation of [the deputy] contradicts any acceptable standard of behavior for law enforcement professionals. Police officers are expected ... . to protect individuals from such acts of intimidation," the reprimands state. The reprimand notes that law enforcement officers are sworn to protect against deception and intimidation. "Your conduct in placing another employee in fear of losing his job and career is in direct violation of the departmental guidelines."
The union officials appealed the discipline and union attorney Fenrich argued that the briefing and calls to the complaining deputy were protected by labor laws forbidding management interference with union communication with members. The union officials were informing members about department rules, not intimidating witnesses, according to Fenrich.
The state Employee Relations Board (ERB) agreed that the county illegally ordered the two union officials to disclose what they had said to the complaining deputy. The ERB noted that the complaining deputy did not file an official complaint and found that neither union official "threatened" the complaining deputy "or otherwise engaged in misconduct." The calls and briefing were union business and "none of the county's business," the ERB ruled.
The ERB ordered the county not to compel union members to disclose union conversations without some evidence of misconduct. It's unclear if this order then resulted in the reprimands being actually withdrawn. County attorney Williams argued to ERB that the calls "had the appearance of strong-arming."
The party and its aftermath created considerable tension within the sheriff's department.
"Everybody was tense, wondering what was going to happen," one female deputy told investigators. The ERB noted that before the party the union's relationship with management was cordial but afterwards "the relationship was strained."
Sheriff Clements, who recently announced he is not running for re-election, tried to smooth relations with the union. Clements wrote to Fenrich that he wasn't trying to punish people for attending the party. Clements noted that he himself "was in attendance for a time." He said he was not singling out the union. "Had the same conduct been reported occurring at a football game or a church social, the response would have been the same."
Investigators faulted union officials for unnecessarily delaying the investigation. Union leaders objected when investigators refused to allow them to sit in on interviews with union members. Clements wrote that their attendance could have a "stifling" effect on testimony and was inappropriate because some of the same union leaders were being investigated for misconduct. The ERB sided with the county on the matter, but the dispute resulted in several interviews having to be rescheduled. Another union board member unsuccessfully argued that he could refuse to answer questions because he was "acting as an agent" of the union attorney.
The union argued that investigators compelling union officials to talk about union business had a "chilling" effect on deputies seeking advice from their union and on union meetings. But the ERB was unconvinced, noting, "it could be argued that some [union] association members have chosen not to be involved in the association not because of the investigation conducted by the county but rather because of the type of activities that occurred in the party sponsored by the association."
RULES OF CONDUCT
The Lane County Sheriff's department manual and the state law enforcement oath require deputies to live up to high standards of personal conduct while on and off duty.
"All employees of this department shall conduct themselves, on or off duty, in a manner that will not bring embarrassment, disgrace, or dishonor to the department, directly or indirectly," the manual states.
"Employee's conduct must be above reproach and must not impugn the credibility and honesty of the department or the law enforcement profession." The manual prohibits, "off-duty conduct that tends to lessen public confidence in the department or respect for the department, thereby impairing operations in any way and tending to cause a loss to the department in public support, monetary support, or lack of mutual respect and/or cooperation from other public agencies."
Other sections prohibit "profane language" and fighting in public and forbid wrongdoing by "omission of an act" and require that deputies behave not just legally but, "morally correct at all times." The department's official "vision and goals" include "maintaining the dignity of all people."
The manual requires off-duty deputies who witness a crime to call city or other on-duty police and be available as witnesses. Deputies must "take some initiative to prevent the crime from being committed and/or assist in the apprehension of the perpetrator."
Law enforcement officers swear when they pin on a badge, "I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all." — Alan Pittman
COUNCILOR CALLED 'FROGGY'
Eugene City Councilor George Poling allegedly propositioned a female sheriff's deputy at the union Christmas party in 2001.
The female deputy told Sheriff's Office investigators that Poling, himself a retired deputy, "was making 'sideways propositions' to her and that George Poling was in a 'froggy' (slang for sexually stimulated) mood. [The deputy] said she felt 'it was no big deal' and it was nothing that she couldn't have 'handled.'"
Poling denied that he propositioned a deputy at the party. "I didn't do something like that. That's absurd. Somebody's just fishing." Poling said he attended the party with his wife and didn't see any heavy drinking or women being harassed. "I've never been contacted by anybody" about the party, he said.
Investigators found that rumors that Poling had groped the deputy were false. "There is no evidence of any misconduct whatsoever and even if there had been, short of criminal behavior, Mr. Poling is not subject to [Lane County Sheriff's Office] policy, procedure or rules of conduct." — Alan Pittman
The president of the deputy union was reprimanded for allegedly repeatedly cursing over a loudspeaker at the Christmas party.
A female guest alleged that the union president "used the word 'fuck' more than five times" while distributing door prizes.
Other deputies interviewed by investigators did not recall the cursing, but none said that the foul language had definitely not occurred or that they would be surprised if it had.
The union president "admitted the term 'fuck' is within his practiced vocabulary," investigators said.
Union attorney Rhonda Fenrich complained that the cursing "was protected speech" at an official union event. "The association executive board was standing up," she said at a hearing. "He was speaking on their behalf."
Fenrich argued that the foul language should be viewed in context. "It may be offensive to some in the group, but if you look at the culture that it comes from, the law enforcement culture and the law enforcement community ... . he was not using it in church." — Alan Pittman
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