Longform

Copping an Attitude

Page 5 of 6

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."

She did.
"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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin