Career Death

The consequences for a DPS officer who bucked his bosses' dismissal of a righteous speeding ticket, got fired, and won a $190,000 jury award for wrongful termination

Keep your mouth shut, keep your job, keep your career.

That's the lesson officers of the Arizona Department of Public Safety can take from the case of a rookie who was fired after a supervisor spiked one of his tickets.

Brent Wyatt, an ex-West Virginian with a military haircut and aquiline profile, won his case against the DPS last month for wrongful termination. He is now richer by $190,000, minus payments to his lawyer.

Brent Wyatt would rather be wearing a uniform. If he hadn't tape-recorded telling phone conversations with superiors, he probably would be.
Laura Segall
Brent Wyatt would rather be wearing a uniform. If he hadn't tape-recorded telling phone conversations with superiors, he probably would be.

But he can't seem to land another cop job, just as then-Lieutenant Tim Lane promised he wouldn't be able to do after Wyatt started complaining.

Lane, on the other hand, has since been promoted to commander.

The trial that concluded August 9 exposed the DPS as an agency where ranking authority is to be unquestioned, honesty is a relative term, and internal affairs investigations are used — in the words of one retired officer — like "a hammer."

Said the jury's foreman, "Mistakes were made on both sides. But things went south when he questioned his superiors. Then they went back to cook the performance evaluations."


Wyatt sees himself as a whistle-blower. But Lane may have honestly — albeit incorrectly — believed Wyatt's March 2003 traffic stop of a BMW on Interstate 17 was illegal.

The ticket, for speeding and failure to obey a police officer, had "45" marked in the box for posted speed limit, though the actual speed limit was 65 miles per hour. Records show Lane believed Wyatt had made the stop based on a black-and-yellow advisory speed-limit sign. Wyatt maintains he stopped the car because it was going 70-plus and had swerved in its lane while negotiating the Loop 101 ramp to southbound I-17.

Wyatt said he told the BMW's driver, Michael Slusarek, to get back in his car 12 times before writing him up for "failure to obey." Lane didn't doubt this part of the story. However, records show Lane thought that charge wouldn't hold up because the stop was bad. He said the ticket was the first he'd dismissed in his 22-year career.

No evidence turned up in court records and police investigations that Lane or any other DPS officer knew Slusarek, a local businessman, or his passenger, Phoenix internal medicine physician Wen Zhong.

At the time, though, Wyatt probably had good reason to question how Lane got the ticket erased.

He had gotten into an argument with Slusarek, who said he had friends who were cops. And after Slusarek and Zhong called DPS to complain, one of Wyatt's fellow officers referred to Slusarek as a "bigwig."

Three days later, the ticket was history.

"I just kept thinking about it," Wyatt said in his subtle Southern twang. "'This is not right.'"

He felt sure the ticket was valid and the dismissal had been inappropriate.

Months later, when DPS was trying to determine whether Lane had done anything improper, the agency sought a legal opinion from the Arizona Attorney General's Office about Wyatt's ticket.

"There is no doubt under the law that the stop was valid," Rick Rice, chief counsel of the AG's transportation section, stated in a July 2003 memo to the DPS. "As a former prosecutor, I have handled thousands of speeding citations and have prevailed on many cases much weaker than this one."

Rice also stated that the failure-to-obey citation "would be well-founded if the stated purpose was to protect the driver from nearby traffic." Wyatt said he was trying to protect both himself and the driver from high-speed I-17 traffic.


Suspicious over what had happened, Wyatt began secretly recording his conversations with supervisors. His sergeant, Leland Youngberg, advised him to keep quiet because "how well you suck it up and go on determines how far you go with this agency."

Wyatt said he still wanted to talk to Lane about it. A few days later, Youngberg gave Wyatt his evaluation for the period of December 2002 to February 2003, which was nearly two months overdue.

The evaluation rated Wyatt "below standard," despite DPS policy that requires late evaluations to be marked no less than "standard."

Wyatt teamed up with Sergeant Bill Whalen, a veteran officer — now retired — who sometimes volunteered as an "employee advocate" at the non-union agency.

Whalen, who recently lost a bid for the Arizona Senate to incumbent Jack Harper, directed Wyatt to ask for supporting documentation for the below-standard grade.

Youngberg told Wyatt he could not view the file. A couple of days later, Youngberg called Wyatt in for a meeting, which Wyatt again taped. Youngberg said that if Wyatt told Lane he still thought the Slusarek ticket was valid, it would be his "death warrant."

Youngberg later told investigators he meant only career death.

Two weeks went by, and Wyatt was served with another late evaluation, also below standard, and ordered to report for remedial training.

With Whalen's help, Wyatt filed an internal grievance on May 2, 2003, regarding the two below-standard evaluations. A meeting between Lane, Youngberg and Wyatt soon followed.

Lane, unaware he was being recorded, said he was unhappy Wyatt had gone to Whalen instead of staying in the chain of command.

"The last thing you want to do is get crossways with me, okay? That's the last thing you want to do. Especially if you want to stay here," Lane told Wyatt. "So if you want to be a law enforcement officer in Arizona, they're going to talk to Lieutenant Tim Lane. And what am I going to say? You know, you want me to say favorable things."

Wyatt soon filed a second grievance and had his attorney fire off a letter to the Maricopa County Attorney's office that stated the ticket dismissal represented "mismanagement, abuse of authority, and possibly a violation of the law."

Lane was furious and tried to fire Wyatt, but DPS Major Destin Coleman told him there wasn't enough documentation to warrant termination.

Wyatt's probation was extended for about two months — enough time to gather documentation.


Wyatt, 31, moved to north Phoenix in 1989 from Huntington, West Virginia, to live with his aunt and uncle. His father was "never in the picture," and his mother had health problems and "couldn't properly care for me," he said.

After graduating from Barry Goldwater High School in 1993, he worked odd jobs and tried his hand a couple of times at running his own businesses: an audio-video installation service — "it was kind of a flop" — and Xtreme Motorsports, which involved selling cars.

Wyatt said that in the late 1990s he decided to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a police officer and applied at several agencies.

"It's not the best-paying, but it's the coolest job," he said.

He began working for the DPS in early 2002, but got off to a rocky start and had his field training extended for two weeks. Supervisors pegged him as somebody who seemed to have an excuse for every mistake he made.

But he worked through his issues, ended his field training, and was allowed to begin patrolling solo. His overall work was rated standard from February 2002 until the evaluation he received in April 2003.

From there, his career began unraveling.

As testimony during the trial showed, Wyatt was assigned to work with an officer who had just six months more experience, and who was told to scrutinize Wyatt's performance.

One day, the officer saw Wyatt and Wyatt's realtor at a convenience store. Wyatt told the officer he had been waiting for him at the Deer Valley station, as required, then left to get a soda and meet quickly with his realtor to sign paperwork for a house he had sold.

The officer said Wyatt told him he had gone inside the office.

But the office alarm had not been deactivated to allow entrance.

Soon an internal affairs investigation was launched. Wyatt told investigators he sometimes waited outside the office in his car, and must have been wrong about going inside.

Internal affairs concluded that Wyatt had been dishonest.

At about the same time, Sergeant Youngberg staked out Wyatt's north Phoenix home to make sure Wyatt was starting work on time, DPS records show.

Wyatt said he spotted Youngberg doing surveillance on him and confronted him. Youngberg said he was just "checking on his [Wyatt's] welfare."

Another time, IA investigator Bill Cramer drove out to Wyatt's home at 12:30 a.m. Astonishingly, the DPS later claimed Cramer was trying to determine if Wyatt had gone on vacation as he said he had. Questions submitted to the court by a juror carry an incredulous tone about the incident: "1). Why did Investigator go to Wyatts [sic] house @ 0030 to see if he was home. At 0030 aren't lights off, house quiet, neighbors the same? 2). How can one determine @ this time whether someone is home (w/out knocking on door — etc. . .?) (Is investigator going to testify?)"

The jury foreman, who agreed to be identified as such but did not want his name used, said this "non-standard" investigation worried jurors.

"You can't go staking out people's homes at night," he said, noting that such actions were done at taxpayer expense.

But the 12:30 a.m. trip was fruitful for Cramer: He discovered Wyatt's personal car had an expired dealer plate. Wyatt explained he had the plate because of his old business, and did not know the plate was expired. A quick call to the Motor Vehicle Division, and the plate was valid again. Still, there was consternation at the DPS that Wyatt used the plate, which cost less than regular vehicle registration, in the first place.

Another internal affairs investigation regarding the plate soon nailed Wyatt for conduct unbecoming an officer.

Whalen sat in on the investigations and said supervisors were abusive toward Wyatt.

"I've been in investigations for 25 years," Whalen said. "I know the proper procedures [for internal affairs]. They did not follow proper procedures."


Lane then assigned Wyatt to the squad of Sergeant Dave Hechler, who retired from the DPS in December 2003 after 34 years in law enforcement. Hechler ordered Wyatt to ride with Officer Mike Ransom, whom he told to judge Wyatt fairly.

"Mike and I would wonder what's going on," Hechler said. He remembers thinking, "'They're really fucking this guy over. This is a witch hunt.'"

Ransom gave Wyatt standard ratings for two months. The last standard evaluation should have automatically taken Wyatt off probation, according to DPS rules.

But the evaluation disappeared after Ransom turned it in to Lane's office.

At his deposition in May 2005, Lane said he never saw the evaluation and never signed it.

A couple of weeks after the deposition, the evaluation — which had been signed by Lane, after all — was entered into the DPS system by a clerk. The computer marked Wyatt's status as "off probation." By the time the evaluation was found as part of the trial discovery process, it had already been almost two years since Wyatt was fired.

Ransom later told investigators he was surprised to see a date of August 28 next to Lane's signature on the evaluation, since he hadn't turned it in until August 30. The missing-then-found evaluation "couldn't have been a coincidence," said the jury foreman.

Internal affairs later exonerated Lane of any wrongdoing following a passed polygraph test in which he was asked whether he "deliberately lied" during his deposition.

Lane did not return phone calls from New Times.

State law requires an agency that loses more than $150,000 in a lawsuit to write a plan that would prevent such a loss in the future. A draft of the plan DPS came up with is awaiting final approval, said Rick Knight, spokesman for the agency.

One thing the plan requires is for Lane and all other DPS command and manager-level employees to attend an eight-hour training session on how to handle grievances, performance management, and employee evaluations. Even agency director Roger Vanderpool will take the class, Knight said.

The DPS changed another policy since Wyatt made his tapes: As of July 2004, it prohibits employees from covertly recording other employees except for official department investigations.

The regulation "stemmed from a separate incident," Knight maintained. "I've been advised it has nothing to do with the Wyatt case."

As for Wyatt, he asked for his job back in 2005, at the time his last standard evaluation was finally located. He asked again last month following his court victory. He's still unemployed.

"I think DPS on the whole is a good agency," he said. "They've got some major management issues."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Phoenix Concert Tickets

Around The Web

Loading...