The subpoena frightened Sgt. Steve O’Dell. One of the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) most decorated officers, the 27-year veteran had survived the roughest of situations, but he’d never had to testify against his own department. The sergeant was scheduled as a witness at the first of six public hearings to be held by the D.C. Council’s newly appointed Special Committee on Police Misconduct and Personnel Management. The topic was MPD’s history of retaliation against whistle-blowers.
When he arrived at the council chambers on Feb. 26, O’Dell contemplated the irony of his predicament: He knew that he would soon be a target of the same retaliatory practices he was scheduled to testify against.
In his testimony before the council panel, O’Dell didn’t keep his fears to himself. “It is a dark day for me to be here,” he said. “Once you fall out of favor, there’s some dark days ahead. This is a painful and intimidating thing to have to be here.” Committee members nodded.
O’Dell’s words were prescient. Since testifying before the committee, he has become the subject of three investigations by MPD’s Internal Affairs Division.
When Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans secured an unprecedented emergency resolution in late January to establish the special committee, he promised to ruffle some white shirts at MPD. The committee came equipped with subpoena power, a $500,000 budget, a trio of experienced lawyers, two retired MPD officers as investigators, and even a 24-hour hot line. Mark Tuohey, a former federal prosecutor with years of experience cleaning up white-collar corruption, was tapped to chair the investigation.
Despite all its powers, the committee hasn’t been able to protect the MPD officers who have appeared before it. Most of the witnesses who have testifiedlike O’Dellhave suffered retaliation ranging from the silent treatment by co-workers to veiled threats by upper management and intrusive Internal Affairs investigations. “The level of scrutiny that I’ve been put under here since my testimony has been unparalleled in my career,” O’Dell reports. “That’s just the way it is. You got a culture and a system within the police departmentyou don’t make waves.”
O’Dell’s first brush with MPD’s vindictive culture came after he issued a traffic ticket to a fellow officer for running a stop sign. According to O’Dell’s testimony, 2nd District Commander Jacqueline Barnes summoned him to her office and ordered him to turn the ticket over. O’Dell refused. “Basically, I stated that it wasn’t the correct thing to do,” O’Dell reported. “It undermined my authority. I thought it was incorrect and unlawful. I told her I would pursue the matter with the U.S. Attorney’s office. She became visibly angry with me.”
Then came the nitpicking. First his superiors suggested that he might want to think about transferring to another police district. Then he heard reports that officers had seen him driving drunk in his cruiser. He demanded proof but never received any. At that point, he stated in his testimony, “It [was] pretty common knowledge I [had] fallen out of favor.”
O’Dell grew quite familiar with the piece of paper known as a PD-90, the department’s tardy slip. He received two of them within two weeks. In both cases, he says, the reprimands were unwarranted.
Since his appearance before Tuohey’s panel, O’Dell has discovered that speaking on the record about MPD’s ways invites harsher retaliation than writing up a colleague. Second District authorities are now hounding O’Dell in connection with three alleged instances of procedural misconduct. Neither O’Dell nor MPD investigators would comment on the investigations, citing confidentiality oaths. “It’s a fishing expedition,” says O’Dell. “They are out to undermine my credibility.”
Catherine Taggart-Wilson, a 7th District officer, made the same mistake O’Dell did. At the same committee hearing, Taggart-Wilson testified that cops known as troublemakers routinely wind up assigned to beat jobs at the department’s 6th and 7th DistrictsMPD’s very own Siberia. She also detailed many cases of unfair treatment suffered by credible rank-and-file officers. Like O’Dell, Taggart-Wilsonwho says her written complaints to former chiefs, various councilmembers, and control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer went unansweredhoped that her testimony would produce results and a friendly MPD policy toward whistle-blowers.
It didn’t work. Taggart-Wilson’s testimony prompted some positive stories in local papers, a few wary glances at the stationand at least three Internal Affairs investigations.
“They are looking for something to get me on,” says Taggart-Wilson. “They kept saying, ‘You testified to this. We want documents.’ Everything is on file. Why are they drilling me?”
According to Taggart-Wilson, Internal Affairs is parsing every last statement in her testimony before Tuohey’s panel. Investigators have asked her the same questions over and over, she says. Now she feels as if she’s on trial.
“I am fighting to death right now,” Taggart-Wilson says. “I’m paranoid. I didn’t lie….I’m looking over my shoulder all the time.”
Taggart-Wilson’s treatment represents just the sort of MPD shenanigans Tuohey has vowed to investigate and snuff out. In his numerous appearances at community meetings, Tuohey has insisted he can set MPD’s reforms in motion. “There’s no questionthere’s no confidence in public safety and little else,” Tuohey told a crowd at a forum organized by D.C. Watch, a group headed by activist Dorothy Brizill.
Taggart-Wilson has experienced the limits of Tuohey’s oversight on MPD. She brought evidence of her recent run-in with Internal Affairs to Tuohey’s staff and got the stiff arm. “They said that they were not set up to be lawyers for us on an individual basis,” she recalls. “I think it was standard political bullshit.”
Tuohey says he’s carrying out his mandate: “We’re monitoring the people who testified to make sure there is no retaliation since they testified,” he says. “I don’t know if there’s been retaliation. We have been following up on the people that have testified to make sure they haven’t been retaliated against….Any official that retaliates is going to have to answer to the special committee and the new chief of police. It’s that simple.”
That would be a refreshing change. When former Interim Chief Sonya Proctor testified before the panel, she denied all rumors of MPD retaliation, blackballing, and other forms of intimidation.
Committee members never challenged those claims.
Evans insists that pursuing allegations of retaliation is a job for the city’s inspector general, not the council. “One of the challenges that we face is trying to keep this focused. We have a six-month window,” Evans says. “What I don’t want to have is a Whitewater investigation. If we start going down every blind alley, we’ll never get done.”
And no authority, says Evans, can crack down on the hallway slights and epithets that pass for retaliation. “In the bigger picture, there’s not a lot I can do about somebody who walks by and says [to a whistle-blower], ‘Asshole,’” Evans concedes.
Still, panel witnesses expected much better from the do-gooders on the police committee. “I felt like I was set up, actually,” says one witness, who wishes to remain anonymous.
MPD’s rank and file are not exactly getting in line to rat on the department in public hearings. Public safety activist Carl Rowan Jr. says the panel is scrounging for witnesses. “They called me a few days before the hearing: ‘Can you get us anybody?’” he says. Rowan reports three appeals by the committee for assistance in finding officers willing to testify. “After responding to eleventh-hour requests in finding help with witnesses, I refused to take part in the [next] hearing. They have failed to keep their promises of exposing misconduct, holding miscreants accountable, and protecting those that testified.”
Officers throughout MPD are now watching closely to see what happens to witnesses who have appeared before the committee. If officers like O’Dell and Taggart-Wilson get transferred to unpopular posts or assigned to desk duty, Tuohey & Co. may end up conversing with themselves at upcoming hearings.
Meanwhile, O’Dell and Taggart-Wilson have exhausted all avenues of recourse. “This is a crossroads,” O’Dell explains. “Either this will help facilitate a change in the culture in how we look at managing the police department, or it will probably bring about my demise. It’s definitely a crossroads one way or another….Either things will change, or I rolled the dice and I lost.”CP