SWAT video: off-duty, off-color
By ANNE LINDBERG
© St. Petersburg Times,
PINELLAS PARK -- Five police officers representing the city at an international competition have been reprimanded for using racial slurs, buying alcohol while using a city police car and, for one officer, appearing in a hotel hallway wearing only a jockstrap.
Pinellas Park officials say the incidents happened last December during a SWAT team roundup in Orlando. The competition, which was attended by elite police squads from around the world, was the first to which Pinellas Park had sent a team. The officers' participation cost taxpayers $1,925.
Team members videotaped parts of the competition as well as some of their off-duty activities. The behavior in question was recorded on the video, which the city has declined to release because officials do not want to reveal the men's faces.
Neither police Chief Dorene Thomas nor any of the officers involved in the investigation returned phone messages asking for comment.
Council member Ed Taylor said he had not seen the video and did not need to, but that he trusted Thomas had made the right decision.
"Dorene certainly had to do something," Taylor said. "I'm sure (the punishment is) appropriate. Dorene and her folks are doing a very good job."
Pinellas Park has 87 police officers. Three of them are African-American; 10 are female. The city has about 45,700 residents. About 11 percent are non-white.
Former St. Petersburg police Chief Goliath Davis said that the allegations of racial slurs, if true, were cause for concern.
Davis said he had not seen any of the documents and declined to second-guess Thomas' decision.
"If these things are true, it would raise some concern with me with members of the community, with other members of the department," Davis said. "These kinds of things will tend to have a chilling effect on your relationship with the community, if true."
Receiving a written reprimand were:
Sgt. Paul Andrews, who was one of two supervisors in charge of the eight-man team. Andrews was present when racial slurs were videotaped. He also purchased alcohol while in a city police car, according to internal affairs documents released Friday.
Sgt. Kevin Riley, the other supervisor. Riley used racial slurs and failed to stop others from using "culturally insensitive" language, city documents show.
Officer Cassidy Perry, for engaging in "inappropriate behavior" and using "culturally insensitive" language, documents say.
Officer Tai Ku, for using racial slurs, buying alcohol while in a city police car and engaging in "inappropriate behavior," records show. Ku is the officer who was in the hall in his jockstrap, according to the investigation.
A written reprimand is the second-lightest punishment an officer can receive under Pinellas Park's progressive disciplinary plan.
Ku was unhappy with the determination of his punishment, issuing a one-page response to the reprimand.
"I find this decision and the path this decisionmaking process took disheartening!" Ku wrote.
"This past year, I have made the ultimate sacrifices and have only asked for empathy while dealing with my personal demons. Instead, I have received nothing but persecution and betrayal by fellow officers."
Ku continued, "The comments made were not made in a derogatory nature and were made in the context of the situation . . . I think we are being unjustly persecuted."
He concluded, "This decision has broken my heart and my faith."
Officer Gerald Weaver received the lightest punishment: a verbal counseling. He apparently showed a copy of the tape to other department employees and gave it to another officer, who also shared the video with colleagues.
A sixth officer, Cindy Martin, was determined to have misused public property, records show. Martin used a city VCR to copy the tape. She then gave the tape to her attorney. Martin is one of two female officers who has sued the city, claiming she is the victim of sexual discrimination.
According to excerpts of a transcript of the videotape, the events began on Dec. 3 about 5:30 p.m. Riley, Andrew, Ku and Perry went to an Orlando Dairy Queen drive-through.
The men were cutting up and, after the order was placed, Ku said, "Make sure you spit on the cone." He made several similar comments about the counter help spitting on his food.
Then, after Andrews was handed a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate, Ku said, "Once you go black, you never go back."
Riley said, "We don't want you back."
Perry said, "Once you go black, we don't want you back."
Ku said, "What's wrong with vanilla ice cream?"
Riley: "Culturally bias."
Ku: "It's a mulatto."
All the officers later testified that they meant nothing racial about the comments. They were referring to the ice cream, they said.
After leaving the Dairy Queen, they drove to a liquor store in the unmarked city police car. Records show that Riley saw three men standing outside. At least one was African-American.
"Break up the f--ing heist. This guy is robbing the place," Riley said. "If Stymie ain't robbing the place, I ain't eating ice cream."
Stymie was an African-American cast member on the Our Gang comedy series from 1935-1940.
There was laughter.
Ku said, "He's got a green Army jacket on and a black ski mask. I don't have to be a detective to know the clues."
In testimony during the internal affairs investigation, both Riley and Ku denied they meant anything racially derogatory by their comments.
In this case, as with the conversation at the Dairy Queen, the officers said the conversation was private and could not be heard outside the car. It was never meant to be heard by anyone else, they said.
Later into the tape -- it's unclear if it was the same day -- one scene shows several of the officers in a hotel room. Ku comes in wearing a towel. After several minutes, Ku removes the towel and is wearing only a jockstrap. He goes into the hall that way. He's out there for a minute or two. While there, he apparently grabbed his groin, according to questions the investigating officer asked.
Ku denied he was grabbing his groin and said the jockstrap had a covered back.
When asked during the investigation if he felt this was appropriate, Ku answered: "No, I do not think that was inappropriate. I think it can be perceived as inappropriate when it's looked at from an angle that doesn't know all the facts."
Ku added, "If I see a guy pushed outside the room and everyone's laughing and joking and they quickly let him back in the room, I would think of it as a joke and not inappropriate."
Capt. Mike Haworth, who conducted the internal affairs investigation, said: "But you certainly wouldn't want your family to see that."
Ku: "Excuse me?"
Haworth: "You certainly probably wouldn't want your family to see that."
Ku: "In that context, as a joke, we'd probably laugh along with it."
But Ku said his wife, Christen, was not laughing when she found out about the tape and discovered that copies had been made and people in the department were talking about it.
In fact, both Kus filed a sexual harassment complaint against Officer Cindy Martin when they discovered Martin had copied the tape and showed it to two other officers. Martin also gave her attorney a copy, presumably to bolster her claim of unequal treatment in her sex discrimination suit against Pinellas Park.
Ku read a statement by his wife into the record when he was interviewed during the investigation.
"I feel both embarrassed and betrayed. I feel embarrassed a tape depicting my husband in his underwear has been viewed by officers other than those that were present during the initial action in the hotel room at SWAT roundup."
Mrs. Ku added, "I do not find it appropriate that others, especially females, are finding enjoyment, or whatever else they are doing, with these tapes at my husband's and my expense. I feel very humiliated because of this."
But during her interview with Haworth, Martin said she had not caused the problem. Ku, she said, was responsible for his own problems.
"I think Officer Ku put himself in an unfavorable light when he chose to stand in front of his co-workers in what I feel is an intoxicated state, half-dressed," she said.
5 OFFICERS PUNISHED
Five Pinellas Park police officers have been disciplined for behavior videotaped last December during an international SWAT team competition in Orlando. SWAT teams are made up of elite police officers who are called in during touchy situations such as hostage negotiations. Pinellas Park paid $1,925 to send eight officers to the roundup, the first time the city has sent a team. These officers were disciplined:
SGT. PAUL J. ANDREWS, 35, 17-year department veteran, $54,475 per year.
Was one of two supervisors in charge of the eight-man team.
Andrews used poor judgment with respect to off-duty conduct and failed to provide proper supervision while representing the city because he was present during a time of "inappropriate behavior" and "culturally insensitive" language. He also bought liquor while in a city vehicle. (The liquor apparently was not drunk in the car.)
Previous discipline: 1994, oral warning for authorizing a high-speed chase contrary to city policy.
SGT. KEVIN RILEY, 36, 12 years with department, $51,834 per year.
Was the other supervisor in charge of the team.
Riley also used poor judgment with respect to off-duty conduct and failed to provide proper supervision while representing Pinellas Park. Specifically, Riley engaged in inappropriate conduct and used racial slurs as well as failed to stop others who were doing so. While the tape was supposed to be private, it was brought to the department, copied and shown to other officers, which embarrassed one of the SWAT team members.
Previous discipline: 1998, verbal counseling, for authorizing too much overtime.
OFFICER GERALD WEAVER, 32, three years with Pinellas Park, $32,469
Showed a copy of the videotape to other employees at the department and loaned it to another officer, who played it for even more officers. This caused embarrassment to the SWAT team, the department and the city.
No previous discipline.
OFFICER CASSIDY PERRY, 25, two years with department, $31,595
Failed to properly conduct himself while representing the city in an official capacity by using culturally insensitive language and engaging in inappropriate behavior. Also videotaped the activities and gave a copy of the tape to another SWAT team member who played it at the department.
No previous discipline.
OFFICER TAI KU, 27, three years with department, $31,595
Failed to exercise sound judgment while off-duty while representing the city in an official capacity. Engaged in inappropriate activity and used culturally insensitive language. Also bought alcohol while in a city police car.
No previous discipline.
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