Looking away in Cleveland

Looking away in Cleveland

December 3rd, 2011 in Opinion Times

Cleveland Police Chief Wes Snyder and Assistant Chief Gary Hicks have strongly denied the substance of this newspaper's stories earlier this week which said they failed to immediately begin an investigation in May of 2008 as to whether some Cleveland policemen were giving alcohol and pills to young girls and having sex with them. They claimed they had no specific information then on which to begin an official investigation until December 2008.

That is not what their own department's internal affairs file shows. It shows that they knew enough in May of 2008 to immediately launch an investigation, yet they failed to do so -- in apparent violation of state laws pertaining to reports of abuse of children and the police department's duty to report and investigate such complaints. Tennessee laws state that failure to report claims of child abuse and neglect is itself a misdemeanor violation of the law.

A memo by Hicks, found in the file of 543 pages accumulated in the Cleveland Police Department's internal affairs unit's subsequent investigation, shows that Hicks held a meeting with a number of police officers on May 29, 2008, in which the nature of such alleged misconduct was discussed. The memo said the meeting was attended by Jeff Davis, the city of Cleveland's personnel director; Captains Wesley Dilbeck and Tommy McLain; Lieutenants Danny Chastain, Steve Tyson and Lamar Anderson; Sgt. Matt Jenkins, and officers Jonathan Hammons, Bill Higdon and Nathan Thomas. It said Lt. Tyson would make Officer Dennis Hughes "aware of the warnings given during the meeting."

Officers Hughes and Thomas were subsequently convicted, in July 2010, of statutory rape and drug use. A copy of the file of the internal investigation was requested by reporter Todd South under Tennessee's open records law.

"No accusations were made," in the meeting, the memo says. "However, the officers were warned about unbecoming and unacceptable behavior including, but not limited to, dating minors, porn on City-owned phones, consumption of alcoholic beverages while off-duty, snorting crushed pills, oral sex in public, and running from other law enforcement agencies."

Those issues are so explicitly and individually listed that it seems inconceivable that the Cleveland Police Department and its leadership could fail to follow up with an investigation into whether any of its officers had actually engaged in such conduct, and, if they had, could then fail to initiate the prosecution of such offenses.

The time lapse between initial reports of officers sharing alcohol and prescription drugs with young girls and having sex with them became apparent two-and-a-half weeks ago, when Hicks testified in a former detective's employment lawsuit. Hicks testified that Chief Snyder knew of allegations of statutory rape and drug abuse against some of his officers in May 2008 but failed to start an investigation. His memo seems to corroborate that testimony.

Hicks testified that before May that year, the department received complaints that some of its officers were illegally using hydrocodone and having sex with teenage girls. Snyder, Hicks testified, told him to meet with the officers and "get their attention." Hicks subsequently held the meeting on May 29, 2008, as described in the memo.

In fact, the police department, according to the records made available to reporters South and Judy Walton, did not begin an investigation into whether its officers were guilty of misconduct until early December 2008. That was when two on-duty officers, Chris Mason and Jonathon Hammons, visited off-duty officer Dennis Hughes at his home, and Hughes accidentally shot Mason in the hand. An investigation into that incident subsequently revealed that Hammons and officer Nathan Thomas were using pills without a prescription, and then the probe expanded to statutory rape.

Thomas pleaded guilty in July 2010 to charges of statutory rape, drug use and forgery and was sentenced to six years in prison. Hughes pleaded guilty to aggravated statutory rape and aggravated assault was placed on probation. The girls involved were 14 and 16 years old.

Chief Snyder complained to this newspaper that South's story on Tuesday was "grossly inaccurate" because it lacked context. Hicks said separately on Thursday that there "were no facts or evidence," only "rumors" about official misconduct in May of 2008, and claimed this newspaper's story did "not reflect the entire context of (his) testimony."

Discovery of Hicks' May 29, 2008, memo challenges their rebuttals. It clearly provides enough context to merit a deeper inquiry by the TBI and the state Department of Children's Services as to why the Cleveland Police Department's top two officers, among others identified in the memo, did not immediately launch an investigation of statutory rape and illicit drug use by officers under their administrative authority, and whether the delay was itself in violation of the law.

The issue of what happened to the under-aged girls when the Cleveland Police Department was looking the other way must be investigated, and appropriately resolved. Looking away again now from the department's negligent conduct, and the further harm that ensued, would be doubly wrong.