OPEN RECORDS PREVENT A POLICE STATE
I look at police files for a living. So I've got a problem with a proposed State House bill that would lock up those reports. And because the police have retaliated against me when I've exposed law enforcement corruption, I'm not wild about the idea that, somehow, the behavior of cops ought to be a state secret.
Every reporter in Arizona who covers courts or cops can tell you horror stories of police departments stonewalling requests for public files, even though a strong open-records law has been on the books since territorial days. The plan for a new statute to keep police paperwork secret is a brazen legislative ploy that follows an unsuccessful six-year fight by law enforcement to hide its reports in the Phoenix Suns drug-use and point-shaving "scandal." The 1987 case is now so old no one remembers that after the Phoenix police chief and the Maricopa County attorney concluded their sensational show bust of professional basketball players, no one went to jail. The real story, contained in the suppressed public record, of how little actual evidence the cops had in the Suns bust, is yesterday's news.
Even though the Arizona Supreme Court last year ordered the police files released to the media, it was too late. The press had won a Pyrrhic victory. Though the press victory was hollow, the cops were nervous enough about the Supreme Court decision that they concluded stall tactics and lengthy litigation were not sufficient. Police associations around the state proposed gutting the open-records law.
We've been told locking up public records is for our own good. We've been told it's to protect citizens who might be afraid of testifying.
We've been told everything but the truth.
"Witnesses could be intimidated from stepping forward if they knew their names would be disclosed in police files," said Lieutenant David Felix, governmental liaison for the state Department of Public Safety, in a front-page explanation carried by the morning newspaper.
This is spin-doctoring. What this legislation protects is bad cops and bad police work.
Because DPS is leading the charge on this questionable bill, let me tell you about a case I covered involving the state police that only saw the light of day because law enforcement files are public record.
On January 28, 1990, Jeffery Dawes, a high school junior, made the sort of stupid decision teenagers are known for. Seeing police lights in his rear-view mirror, he sped off instead of pulling over. When the DPS officers finally caught up with the 17-year-old Dawes, the teenager was shot in the head and killed. The official explanation was that this young boy, barely old enough to drive, died resisting arrest.
Then DPS investigators lurked around the school the slain Dawes had attended in a desperate attempt to link the teenager to drug dealing. The press liaison for the state police leaked vicious rumors about the dead boy to the media, hoping to sully the youngster's reputation.
When I finally got my hands on the public records, I discovered that, according to the officer who shot the teenager, Dawes was not resisting arrest. He had exited his car, had no weapon, had his hands raised in surrender and had his back turned to the officer.
It was a bad shooting, plain and simple.
This obvious fact so alarmed law enforcement investigators that they tried to feed an alibi to the DPS officer who pulled the trigger. Public records revealed this line of questioning of the officer who shot Dawes:
Detective: "So your stress level, at that point, I'm sure the adrenaline is really flowing. Uh, could it have been that, that, uh, due to the stress level of yourself at that point that you, he might have resisted some and you just were not aware of it?"
DPS officer: "That's possible." Given this powder-puff interrogation, are you at all surprised that the DPS officer was not disciplined, let alone indicted, for killing a prisoner in his custody?
Public records further revealed that an autopsy showed no drugs at all in Dawes' body. There wasn't any justification for DPS investigators trying to link the dead boy to drug dealing. It was a clumsy effort to smear the dead boy, nothing more.
The parents of the dead boy retained an attorney and eventually obtained a large financial settlement from the state police. They also insisted upon and received a letter of apology from the director of DPS for his agency's conduct following the shooting.
The same month I wrote about the Dawes shooting, I concluded a five-part series that examined the interlocking roles of the county attorney and the Phoenix Police Department in the Valley's most notorious bar for crack-cocaine transactions, Club 902.
Once again, police files that are currently public documents proved critical.
The record revealed County Attorney Rick Romley held a hidden interest, worth nearly $1,000 a month, in a saloon notorious for hosting patrons who peddled crack both out in the parking lot and even inside the bar.
Ironically, at the time of the series, President George Bush was singling out Police Chief Ruben Ortega and County Attorney Rick Romley for their highly praised campaign against crack, "Do Drugs, Do Time."
But the reality behind the scenes was that Chief Ortega's police department had protected Romley's hidden stake in Club 902. Arizona law requires that the police forward to the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control a report each and every time the police make an arrest or are summoned to a bar. The state liquor control board is responsible for closing down bars that can't or won't maintain order. In the preceding year, the police made an astounding 127 arrests at Romley's ghetto bar. The vast majority of these cases involved cocaine.
Yet not a single narcotics write-up made its way from the police department to Liquor Control.
The day after Romley's ties to Club 902 were revealed, records showed an attempt was made to shift the ownership of the bar to a self-described friend of the Romley family. The liquor control board labeled this move as a heavy-handed attempt to shield Club 902 from enforcement action. Nonetheless, police administrators quickly signed paperwork giving their approval.
When I finally found the police records that revealed the extent of the criminal activity and crack dealing at Club 902, a spokesman for Chief Ortega attempted to lie his way out of the situation. He suggested that the paperwork was scattered throughout the department and only recently assembled by hand.
In fact, the department's records bureau maintained a comprehensive file on all bars. And I got a copy of that report because that file is a public record.
The problem with Club 902 was not a clerical problem; the problem was that police administrators had simply refused to turn copies of their extensive files over to the liquor control board.
County Attorney Rick Romley's smarmy little cut from a crack-infested business operation was hidden and protected by Police Chief Ruben Ortega's police department until public records exposed the details.
When that happened, state liquor chief Hugh Ennis announced that because of the series of columns on Club 902, he was closing the bar permanently.
The same year that Club 902 was shuttered, County Attorney Romley and Police Chief Ortega launched the biggest public relations coup of their careers. They hired Joseph Stedino, a fringe mob player turned government informant, to front the AzScam sting.
For the better part of a year, Stedino, posing as a representative of Las Vegas interests, attempted to bribe elected officials into supporting legislation to legalize gambling in Arizona.
Politicians and lobbyists were videotaped accepting bribes; 18 subsequent indictments led to prison terms for the guilty.
But the public record also showed that Ortega and Romley used AzScam to try to punish critics.
In a yearlong review of the massive public record--250 videotapes, 600 audio tapes and more than 20,000 pages of transcripts--I discovered a sustained effort by law enforcement to entrap the head of the firefighters union, Patrick Cantelme.
Another AzScam operative, Gary Bartlett, told New Times, "Over 90 percent of the conversations I had with him [Stedino] were to get introductions to Pat Cantelme . . . the whole thing, when I was involved, was directed at Pat Cantelme and the fire department."
Cantelme had done nothing wrong. He had no vote or stake in legalized gambling. His only crime was that he was Arizona's most visible political opponent of Police Chief Ortega.
Though Stedino made repeated attempts to buy Cantelme, the firefighter kept his integrity.
The outrageous attempt by Ortega and Romley to jail Cantelme and thereby silence a critic would never have surfaced if the police had been able to hide their files. Under the new legislation that law enforcement is proposing, the AzScam transcripts would have remained locked up.
My stake in this bill is more than that of a working journalist who wants access to police records. I'm also a citizen who has tasted his own blood thanks to a few bad-apple cops.
In the course of reviewing the mountains of AzScam transcripts, I discovered that Stedino was also trying to set me up.
Chief Ortega's undercover agent was taped making his first inquiry about me only 24 hours after I wrote that the state liquor control board was going to close County Attorney Romley's Club 902.
Finally, the former director of the Department of Public Safety and one of his top aides confirmed that undercover DPS officers had followed me for two weeks and investigated my personal finances at the behest of Chief Ortega.
The state police went through my bank records, looked at tax returns and did a financial workup to see if I lived beyond my means. When I went to work, they went with me. When I went home, they followed. On trips out of town, they got on the airplane and sat next to me.
According to the ex-DPS director Ralph Milstead, Chief Ortega had explained that he wanted me tailed, but he didn't want the fingerprints of the Phoenix police on the investigation. That would be too obvious.
Nothing came of this repugnant police work, unless you count the television and newspaper accounts reporting that I'd been investigated. In a case like this where the cops decide to play rough, you never know when the publicity hits who accepts the fact that you were innocent and who believes you were too clever to get caught. @rule:
@body:Every excess and abuse you've read here happened with a strong public-records statute on the books. Clearly, the "sunshine laws" are not a deterrent to unethical cops. However, when journalists and citizens insist upon learning the truth, the paperwork trail provides answers to the most fundamental questions.
I do not trust writers who use terms like fascist, or who compare every civil liberties threat to Germany in the 30s. But there is a chilling scene in the book Schindler's List that describes what happens in a society that does not have access to its own paperwork.
In the autumn of 1942, members of the Jewish underground based in Istanbul sent out boxes of postcards to Zionists who lived in occupied Europe. The cards inquired about the recipient's welfare and asked for a reply. Only a single response made its way back to Turkey. The authorities controlled all of the records.
The files and reports kept by law enforcement buttress a free society. The paperwork belongs to all of us every bit as much as it belongs to the prosecutor with a subpoena and the officer with a badge.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.