Copping an Attitude

Public complaints about racism have created firestorms of recrimination at the Glendale police department. Is psychological counseling a remedy for the conflict -- or retaliation against officers who spoke out?

"That's about it. No vendetta."
Cindi Nannetti, head of the county attorney's sex-crimes unit, says she attended Dempsey's meeting with Hoag.

"Sergeant Dempsey showed absolutely no bias against Jan Whitson in our meeting with him," Nannetti says. "I've been in dozens of these types of meetings, where an officer from a police department questions me about another officer's performance. Believe me, I've seen cases where they come in with a predetermined thought process. Not this time."

The internal-affairs probe into Whitson was one of several related events that affected the Glendale P.D. in May and June. Others included the New Times story, dismissal of a civil rights lawsuit against several officers by one of Frank Balkcom's sons and the onset of the "conflict mediation" counseling.

To Chief Dobrotka, it has added up to an unhappy mess.

David Dobrotka has a large poster of Albert Einstein sitting over his desk at the Glendale Police Department. "Peace cannot be kept by force," it quotes the great scientist. "It can only be achieved by understanding."

Dobrotka says "understanding" has been hard to attain in segments of his agency.

"I haven't been through anything quite to this extent," he says. "I've got an officer--Whitson--who is trying to connect everything with retaliation for the story and for making allegations of racism against other officers. She's convinced the internal against her was a setup. But there's no way I wasn't going to look into the possibility that one of my officers had committed perjury."

A music major in college, Dobrotka floated into law enforcement in the late 1960s. He spent years in the Minneapolis Police Department, working his way up to assistant chief before eyeing the Southwest. In mid-1994, he and his family decided to make the move to Glendale, one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, with a population of about 180,000.

Dobrotka says he soon came to realize that he had some exceptionally disgruntled officers on his hands.

As detailed in the first New Times story, the troubles boiled over in the aftermath of an April 1994 brawl between several Glendale police officers--including members of the department's gang squad--and two of Frank Balkcom's sons at a wedding reception. The clash led to criminal charges against the boys and, later, to the lawsuit by Frank Balkcom Jr. against several officers.

For multiple reasons, the suit never took off and was dismissed last month by a federal judge. But one general allegation in the complaint was stunning.

"The Glendale P.D. . . . was known for the racist behavior of various of its officers," Frank Balkcom Jr.'s suit alleged. "Furthermore, the Glendale P.D. tolerated the use of racially and ethnically pejorative language among its police officers, thereby allowing to exist and acquiescing in an atmosphere of racial and ethnic bias and prejudice."

A key source of that allegation was Jan Whitson, a close friend of Frank Balkcom. She had worked shifts with the gang squad and says the derogatory language some members of the squad used when referring to Hispanic and black citizens disgusted her.

"I asked my sergeant then to please not assign me to work with those people," Whitson says. "Racist comments by police officers on the job aren't right. I'm not going to pull a Mark Fuhrmann and say I've never uttered a slur, because it wouldn't be true. But not ever in uniform, not ever on the job. No way."

Dobrotka says that because of the then-pending litigation, his department's attorneys instructed him not to investigate Whitson's allegations.

"We followed their advice," the chief says. "But as soon as the case was dismissed, we got the go-ahead. We are investigating this stuff as we speak."

"I'll tell you this flat-out," Dobrotka adds. "When the investigation is complete--and it won't be a whitewash--we will discipline anyone that has it coming to them. Period."

The bad blood escalated in the aftermath of the appellate ruling in State v. Withey.

According to a report filed by Glendale internal-affairs lieutenant Denver Wells, Sergeant Dempsey advised a superior on May 7 of Whitson's ill-advised post-Miranda comments. (This was a week after the appellate reversal, and a few days after the New Times story.)

Dempsey told another lieutenant that case prosecutor Hoag "was upset about the lack of basic interviewing skills on Detective Whitson's part . . ." The clear implication was that she had contacted Dempsey, not the other way around.

Lieutenant Wells then interviewed Hoag (who, incidentally, recently was selected as a Maricopa County Superior Court judge). She said Dempsey had contacted her concerning "possible police misconduct" after the appellate ruling.

Hoag told Wells she didn't believe Whitson had intended to elicit an incriminating response from Withey after he asked for an attorney.

On June 11, Lieutenant Wells spoke with Jan Whitson, which, she says, marked the first she'd heard of the internal investigation. She says Wells volunteered his opinion during their interview:

"'This internal is bullshit,'" he told me. "'I wish they had investigated this before they wrote it up.'"

Wells tells New Times that Whitson has taken his comments way out of context.

"As far as I'm concerned," the lieutenant says, "we--Sergeant Dempsey and everyone else--wouldn't have been doing our jobs if we hadn't investigated this thing. The BS comment referred to what I had found out in looking into it--that Jan hadn't committed perjury or done anything maliciously."

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