Cop Chop

Political squabbling could end the careers of two veteran police officers

"This is simply the county attorney's opinion. I liken it to the fact that a guy's wife puts on a dress in the morning and says, Hey, do I look good?' And he says, Yes' when she really looks terrible. Does he get Brady Listed for that?

"That's how stupid this is."

He calls Soto's misbehavior "much more serious."

Now, the state Department of Public Safety is conducting an administrative investigation into the dispute, at the request of all three agencies. DPS spokesman Frank Valenzuela says it will likely be months before the inquiry is finished.

Personnel files for Cope, Walters and Soto, obtained through public records requests, show all three men have exemplary records and have received numerous commendations for outstanding work.

Dale Walters has been an officer for 12 years, and with the Chandler department since 1995. He's been the narcotics unit sergeant for the past two years. He has received praise for his work on drug cases including a commendation from superiors for the way he handled a four-month investigation in 2001 that resulted in the indictment of 16 crack dealers and 11 crack buyers. "Your leadership and vision was a catalyst for this investigation," Commander Tom Blaine wrote. "This exceptional investigation resulted in the improvement in the quality of life for this neighborhood."

Jim Cope's personnel file is thick with outstanding performance reviews and special commendations. Since joining the Phoenix department in 1988, he has received 62 written commendations and 13 departmental awards, including being named the outstanding supervisor of the year earlier this year.

Cope has been assigned to the drug enforcement bureau since 1996 and, according to lawyers and other cops, is one of the best narcotics officers the department has ever had, with a knack for putting together complicated conspiracy cases. It was Cope who headed the investigation of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano and other suspects that led to their convictions on numerous charges stemming from an ecstasy trafficking ring. Cope has been at the center of other high-profile drug cases as well, and, earlier this year, in just a two-month period, he led a squad that made 79 arrests while seizing 7,200 pounds of marijuana, several pounds of cocaine and meth, guns, vehicles and more than $1 million in cash.

"The stuff that Jim Cope does is Miami Vice type stuff," says Knowles, the union president. "They do wiretaps, very high-profile stuff. A lot of politics involved, a lot of money involved. I've heard it said that he heads up the best drug squad in the Southwest."

Joe Soto worked for the Phoenix Police Department from 1973 until he retired in 1999. He, too, was highly regarded as a drug enforcement officer and is widely considered to be one of the best in the state when it comes to wiretap operations. In 1998, a supervisor called him "a walking encyclopedia" for information on drug trafficking syndicates in the Valley.

"Joe, without question, the area you excel in most is electronic surveillance," the supervisor wrote. "Repeatedly, I have watched you in action in these types of investigations. I am amazed at your investigative abilities."

Records and interviews show Soto is still working street-level drug cases from scratch, and continues to use a familiar source. Soto's confidential informant told Chandler police he had been working with Soto on drug cases for at least 12 years.

Earlier this year, the source told Soto about drug trafficking that was occurring at the Nogales Auto Body shop, at 920 East Broadway in Phoenix.

But Soto didn't supervise his informant in accordance with generally accepted guidelines for overseeing confidential informants, often people who have been engaging in criminal activity themselves. An informant's credibility is always up for question, so police say they have to be rigidly supervised, including controlling and accounting for any money that changes hands. And officers cannot allow informants to be involved in a crime.

When Jim Cope learned about the case and Soto's informant -- a man who had worked with Phoenix police before -- he decided to back away from the investigation mainly because he didn't trust the informant. He didn't like the way the informant operated, and he was uncomfortable with some of the things Soto was allowing the informant to do, Cope told the County Attorney's Office in an interview.

The informant told Chandler police that Soto allowed him to make money on drug deals, according to transcripts provided by Chandler police and the County Attorney's Office. He told Chandler police that he has told Soto that he takes some of the money from drug sales but that Soto has never asked him to turn the cash over to the authorities. He also gets paid by Soto, he said, to be an informant.

The informant made those statements to Chandler police shortly after the May 23 drug raid. Months later, on September 16, the informant told interviewers from the County Attorney's Office that he meant that it was other officers, with the Phoenix Police Department, who had let him keep money and that it had occurred years ago. The County Attorney's Office used that second interview of the informant to determine that allegations Soto had allowed the informant to take money from buyers during the brokering of narcotics deals were unfounded.

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