Copping an Attitude
In a better world, June 6 would have been a fine day for Glendale police officer Janis Whitson. That day, Whitson's immediate supervisor completed his annual review of the 12-year veteran's performance.
"You have been a strong participant in team efforts and have promoted cooperative behavior and team efforts on the squad," Sergeant George Sahadi wrote in his stellar review of Whitson's accomplishments.
Sahadi detailed only one, slightly disconcerting pattern in Whitson's on-the-job habits: "On occasion, I have noticed that working relationships tend to get you down, and you do not hesitate to voice your opinions, which has caused you some difficulties."
This was an understatement.
That afternoon, Glendale assistant chief Paul Felice met with Whitson and Sergeant Frank Balkcom.
Before it was over, Felice had ordered the pair to seek the counsel of a psychologist. The reason? Their key roles in a New Times story ("Bad Blood," May 2) about troubles at the station house.
"Chief Felice told me at our meeting, 'I'm particularly concerned about you, Jan,'" Whitson recalls. "'I've talked to detectives since the article and they don't feel the same way about you . . .' He said the counseling was about healing. But I told him I don't need healing. I've already dealt with some officers who don't see it my way. We've agreed to disagree and carry on with the mission.
"Balkcom asked him pointblank if this was because of our job performances or the story. He said it was the story."
In that story, Balkcom and Whitson took the unusual step of breaking the code of silence that exists at most police agencies. The story described how a Glendale sergeant had wrongly targeted Frank Balkcom's wayward son Eli for several crimes--including attempted murder--that he didn't commit.
In the piece, the pair also alleged that institutional racism was commonplace at the Glendale P.D. They cited examples: the routine, on-duty use of racial epithets by named peers, and the display of drawings with harsh racial connotations, tacked up in the squad room by unknown officers.
The public airing of these serious allegations created an uproar inside the 150-member cop shop of Arizona's fourth-largest city.
Tensions have not abated since the story was published. The department remains in turmoil.
Assistant chief Felice agrees the story was the sole impetus for the meeting and the proposed counseling, which the department now calls "conflict mediation." But he insists his intentions aren't malevolent.
"I feel we need to do something about the hostile working environment that Jan, especially, is going to face when she gets back to detective work," Felice says, referring to Whitson's expected return to investigative work from patrol.
"The article focused in part on some very serious personnel conflicts that we have among experienced officers. Jan and Frank are good officers. But I think they're paranoid about who's out to get them. They want to paint me as the antichrist, which hurts. I've had people tell me, 'They made their bed. Let them lie in it.' I just don't think that's right. We have to do something.
"Our people have to trust each other on the job. If they can't, the work will suffer and so will the citizens."
Randy Henderlite, a Glendale captain who also attended the June 6 meeting, agrees with Felice that Whitson's recollection is skewed.
"Paul [Felice] never said it was going to be a psychological evaluation," Henderlite recalls. "He said right out that the counseling was not punitive, but necessary and good. I thought he was speaking in good faith, but, frankly, I've never been in a worse meeting in my life."
Felice says he also has asked several other Glendale officers to attend the counseling sessions. The list includes detectives Rusty Peterson and Keith Otts, ex-gang-squad members who allegedly have made racially offensive comments; Sergeant Preston Becker, who wove mistaken information into a request for a search warrant for Eli Balkcom's home; and Detective Mike Robbins.
Felice, too, plans to meet with the psychologist.
"I think it's reasonable for me to discuss my frustrations with things with a professional," he says. "I was mentioned negatively in the first article, and a lot of things don't set right with me at the moment."
Police chief David Dobrotka says he wants to turn the fragile, ugly situation around.
"I'm trying to find a way to bury hatchets that have been carried for several years," says Dobrotka, an urbane, direct man who moved to Glendale from Minneapolis in mid-1994. "There are very harsh feelings here, but I'm a cop, not a psychologist. I just don't know how to start pulling down some of the brick walls that have been put up. I've got a legitimate reason as a boss to intervene."
Whitson, who has retained an attorney for a possible lawsuit, doesn't see things that way.
"They've singled me out for speaking my mind," says Whitson. "I won't say that anyone else is a bad officer and I'm perfect. Obviously, I'm not. I've got nothing against talking to a shrink, except I don't want it to be a setup--that I'm diagnosed as being this delusional bitch. All I'm saying is, 'Deal with me equally.'"
Another Glendale officer who requested anonymity says the squabbles have been the subject of many an after-shift coffee klatsch.
"Every agency has its problems, but this has been ridiculous," says the cop. "You've got Jan and Frank, who make some good points, but who think the department is out to get them. And you've got people who hate that all this ugly stuff was exposed publicly. Does all this affect the way anyone is serving the community? Probably not. But it's so damned unhealthy."
Like the old Pogo comic strip, Jan Whitson is convinced she has met the enemy, and he is us.
In many ways, she's a typical cop, bullheaded and prone at times to whining about real and perceived slights. But her personnel file indicates her overall performance at the Glendale P.D. has been outstanding.
Born in tiny Spruce Pine, North Carolina, Whitson recalls the admiration she felt as a young girl for the town cop.
"He wore a dark blue uniform, just like we wear out here," she says, in a soft drawl that betrays her Southern heritage. "He looked sharp and acted sharp. I told myself, 'I'd like to be an officer someday, somehow.' The fact that I was a female didn't enter into my thinking."
But marriage and motherhood put her dream on hold for several years. As an Air Force wife, Whitson lived in various parts of the country before she settled in Glendale in 1979.
Soon after that, Whitson became a fire dispatcher. A few years later, she took a job at the police station, also as a dispatcher.
By now a single mom, Whitson's dream finally was within her sights. She won a spot in the police academy and passed muster. On July 2, 1984, Glendale P.D. hired her as a sworn officer.
"It's all about being up-front, honest and to the point," Whitson says of her policing philosophy. "When you're sure someone is lying to you, you tell them. When someone is being helpful, you thank them."
In 1989, Whitson's superiors transferred her to the detective bureau. For almost five years, until she returned to patrol, Whitson was the only female detective on the Glendale force. (At present, there are none.)
She performed without a major glitch until April 1993, when she investigated a child-abuse case against Milford Edward Withey.
The Glendale man was convicted of pummeling his infant son, but an appeals court ruled April 30 that he deserved a new trial. The court said Whitson had violated Withey's rights under the landmark Miranda decision by continuing to speak with the suspect after he'd requested an attorney's advice.
The appellate reversal led to an investigation by the Glendale P.D. into allegations that Whitson may have lied under oath during the 1993 child-abuse trial.
That internal probe recently cleared Whitson of the perjury allegation. But the department has placed a "memo of correction"--its least serious form of written discipline--into Whitson's personnel file for violating Withey's rights.
Whitson alleges the inquiry was initiated in retaliation for her role in the New Times story; police chief Dobrotka denies the allegation.
The internal probe stemmed from a series of circumstances that illustrate the care police must exercise to avoid violation of the Miranda decision's dictates.
In April 1993, Whitson and fellow detective Tom Clayton were assigned to investigate how 4-month-old Daniel Juliano had sustained life-threatening injuries.
Emergency-room doctors contacted police after finding multiple skull fractures, retinal hemorrhaging and other injuries that led them to suspect someone had intentionally hurt the baby.
At the hospital, Ed Withey first told personnel what he had told his girlfriend, the infant's mother: In his haste to keep an older child from pulling a computer keyboard off a table, he had accidentally kicked Daniel in the head.
Withey stuck with that story in an interview with child welfare officials, and in his first interview with police at his Glendale apartment.
Withey's tune started to change after Whitson and Clayton arrested him, read him his Miranda rights and took him to the police station. There, Withey said he'd become frustrated with the baby's crying, snatched him out of his crib and accidentally dropped him on the floor, kneeing him in the head in the process and knocking him unconscious.
Withey added that he'd thought the infant was dead, but had tried to revive him by shaking him hard for about five minutes.
He agreed to take a lie-detector test; it showed he had answered deceptively on questions relevant to the child's injuries. Told of the results, the detectives again confronted Withey.
Whitson says she saw the polygraph operator's tape player still recording as she urged the suspect to tell the truth. Instead, Withey uttered the magic words, "Can I have a lawyer?"
What happened next, in the opinion of the Arizona Court of Appeals, earned Ed Withey a retrial.
According to case law, when someone invokes his constitutional right to seek counsel, "the police are required to cease all interrogation. . . . Interrogation includes not only express questioning, but also any words or actions on the part of the police (other than those normally attendant to arrest and custody) that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response."
Neither Whitson nor Clayton posed another question to Withey after Withey asked for an attorney. But the tape later revealed that Whitson continued to converse with the suspect for several seconds.
"You want to see a lawyer," Whitson told Withey. "That's fine."
"Yeah, because I'm telling the truth."
"No, you are not telling the truth."
Whitson then told Withey that the testimony of a pediatrician would "fry your ass" at trial.
Within a minute, the detectives silently walked Withey to a holding cell. Clayton left the station as Whitson completed paperwork at a desk near the cell.
About 15 minutes later, Withey later testified, he called to Whitson from his cell. "I asked her if I can talk to her a little bit more," he recalled. "She kind of ignored me."
Whitson says she finally asked Withey what he wanted.
"He says to me, 'You got me nailed, and I want to tell the truth,' or words to that effect, and I stop him right there. I buy time because I know there's going to be an issue here. I wanted someone else present. I take Withey to an interview room and tell him to think hard about what he wants to do."
Whitson called Clayton, who returned within minutes. In a taped interview, Clayton started by asking Withey, "You said you wanted a lawyer earlier. Are you willing to talk without a lawyer?"
"That's your desire, right? No one asked you to do that?"
Withey spun a horrifying tale.
"I got pissed off at him and I did smash him," he told the cops. "But he didn't hit no ground, he didn't get the knee. . . . I threw him as hard as I could on the bed. And I hit him three times with my hand. Open hand."
Withey demonstrated exactly what he meant with a karate-chop motion.
"I really didn't know what to do. I really kind of panicked. And I did rock the heck out of him. I shook him. . . . I'm so sorry. I really am. I'm sorry I lied to you about it."
Withey later wrote several letters to his girlfriend in which he also confessed to the crimes. Little Daniel, by the way, survived his severe beating, though it isn't certain how his recovery will progress. Doctors testified in 1994 that permanent brain damage was likely.
Eighteen months passed, and Ed Withey's case edged toward trial in September 1994. Shortly before jury selection, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert Hertzberg held a hearing to discern whether Withey's post-Miranda admissions had been made voluntarily.
During the hearing, Withey's lawyer asked Whitson, "Would you recall if anyone said, be it you or Detective Clayton, something about 'frying your ass'? Was that said?"
"No," Whitson replied, echoing Clayton's testimony.
After testifying that day, Whitson says, she started to mull over the sequence of events in the polygrapher's office.
"I hadn't remembered the 'fry your ass' comment and neither had Clayton," Whitson recalls. "I'm from the South, and we fry everything--meat, vegetables, corn bread. It was a poor choice of words. But in my mind as I'm sittin' here right now, I had stopped any interrogation."
That night, Whitson and case prosecutor Jean Hoag listened, allegedly for the first time, to the tape recording that included the "fry your ass" comment.
The next morning, Hoag told Judge Hertzberg that Whitson had testified inaccurately. The judge, however, announced he still was going to rule that Withey's confession had been voluntary.
A jury convicted Withey of felony child abuse. Judge Hertzberg then sentenced Withey to 24 years in prison.
That's where things lay until this April 30, when the Arizona Court of Appeals unanimously overturned his conviction, citing "impermissible police conduct" on Whitson's part.
The County Attorney's Office sent a copy of the appellate ruling to the Glendale P.D. Chief Dobrotka says he ordered an internal investigation after he saw the court's opinion and a copy of Whitson's conflicting testimony.
But police records indicate Glendale Sergeant John Dempsey, not Chief Dobrotka, made the initial complaint against Whitson. The distinction is important:
Dempsey, Whitson says, is a pal of Preston Becker, the sergeant who came under fire in the earlier New Times story for erring badly in an affidavit that led to a search of the home of Balkcom's son.
Whitson claims she and Dempsey have had a checkered history. "He plain doesn't like me or whatever it is he thinks I stand for," she says. "Dempsey is buddies with all those officers we've been talking about. Those guys were pissed at being named in the story, at being exposed. He must have drooled when he saw the court decision. But he didn't do his homework at all."
Responds Dempsey: "Yes, I am friends with Preston, but that truly had no bearing on what went on here. Two detectives came to me stating that Jean Hoag was pretty upset about a reversal on a case. They never said Whitson was involved. I called Jean, but she didn't call back at first.
"A few days later, I received a copy of the court's ruling. I read it, and there were some pretty serious issues concerning our liability to civil rights issues, plus cost issues in a retrial, plus publicity issues because of police misconduct causing a convicted child abuser to walk. I was obligated to let my chain of command know what was going on, and I did. A little bit later, I was instructed to talk to Ms. Hoag, and so I did.
"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."
That day, Lieutenant Wells cleared Whitson of "dishonest testimony or perjury concerning this case." He also concluded Whitson had violated policy by continuing to talk with Withey after he'd invoked his rights.
Whitson says the "memo of correction" put in her personnel file was the first disciplinary action against her in 14 years on the force, including two as a police dispatcher.
But the benign result did not pacify Whitson, especially on the heels of the June 6 meeting at assistant chief Felice's office--the one in which counseling was ordered.
On June 16, she and Balkcom wrote separate letters to Felice that summarized their impressions of the testy session.
"Chief Felice," Whitson wrote. "I feel I am maliciously and vindictively being retaliated against because of the New Times article--not only by you, but by your supervisors. I feel the internal complaint is a continuation of this retaliation. I feel you have clearly violated my civil rights by ordering me to attend psyche counseling as a direct result of the New Times article and not job performance."
Felice responds with a surprising touch of self-criticism:
"I honestly don't know what I expected when I called that meeting, but what happened there wasn't it. Maybe I somehow could have handled things better. But I still think Jan's letter was intentionally dishonest. She tried to make it as if I have this evil motive, but I honestly don't. This wasn't about discipline, it was supposed to be about healing. Frankly, things went very poorly."
In late June, Whitson met with Chief Dobrotka and Glendale assistant city manager Ed Beasley at City Hall. (Balkcom was on vacation and couldn't attend.)
"We obviously had some concerns--are we being set up for a lawsuit of some kind?" Dobrotka says. "And I know Jan comes to the table thinking conspiracy. According to her letter to Felice, the plot includes white males. Ed Beasley happens to be a black man, so I hope she felt more comfortable there."
"I told Mr. Beasley--who seemed to be listening sincerely--what I've been telling everyone else," Whitson says. "Treat Jan Whitson straight up, and you won't have a problem with her."
Nothing of substance was resolved at the meeting.
Dobrotka's exasperation with the situation oozes out as he sums up the astonishing animus inside his agency.
"At some point," he says, "depending on what the psychologist says, I might sit everyone down in a room and say, 'Dammit, folks, this is what you're going to have to do in order to survive here. This is a police department.'
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