Cleveland's neglect

Cleveland's neglect

December 15th, 2011 in Opinion Times

T he mayor and City Council in Cleveland (Tennessee) should be willing to launch an investigation of the city's police department, and of its chief, for failure to promptly investigate reports to the department in the spring of 2008 that Cleveland policemen were having sex (i.e., statutory rape) and using illicit prescription with underage girls. Mayor Tom Rowland and councilmen David May, George Poe, Richard Banks and Avery Johnson made it appallingly clear on Monday, however, that they are as unwilling now to assume accountability for the police department's failure to promptly stop child abuse, as was Police Chief Wes Snyder when he reportedly learned of the accusations.

The charges were not pursued for seven months, and then only as an accidental offshoot of an unrelated investigation involving the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation into an accidental shooting of a police officer.

Snyder has claimed that he didn't have enough factual information to launch an investigation when he received reports of child abuse, statutory rape and illicit drug use by at least two of his policemen. That's a poor excuse on its face: Investigations are started to learn the facts about such reports.

In any case, this newspaper's investigation over the last month reveals that Snyder possessed information that begged an investigation in May of 2008. He just didn't bother to investigate it.

The mother of one of the girls involved called the police department in mid-May of 2008, demanding that the police department stop officer Dennis Hughes from coming around her 15-year-old daughter. Assistant Chief Gary Hicks testified in an unrelated civil case last month that he told Chief Snyder a few days after the mother's call that some officers were reportedly using prescription drugs, including Hydrocodone, and having sex with underage girls. Hicks said Snyder told him to "get their (the officers) attention."

On May 29, Hicks wrote a "memo to file" outlining his subsequent meeting with Cleveland's personnel director and the police department's captains, lieutenants, a sergeant and four officers -- including two (Hughes and Nathan Thomas, who in 2010 pleaded guilty to statutory rape and drug violations) -- to warn them about unacceptable conduct.

Hicks' memo was explicit: "... the officers were warned about dating minors, porn on city-owned phones, consumption of alcoholic beverage while off-duty, snorting crushed pills, oral sex in public, and running from other law enforcement agencies."

It is inconceivable that Chief Snyder was not informed of the meeting or the memo, which was typed by his secretary. The department's own rulebook, moreover, makes it clear that reports of officer misconduct were to be promptly reported to the chief of police and promptly addressed by him.

It seems inconceivable, as well, that Cleveland's personnel director, Jeff Davis, would not have forwarded the Hicks' warning to the City Council, or warned the council of the city's civil liability if the police department failed to promptly investigate such alleged child abuse and criminal conduct among the city's officers, and failed to take appropriate action.

It now seems equally clear that Snyder's claim that he lacked enough specific information to launch an investigation in May, 2008, is not only untenable: It also allowed police rape of underage girls -- ages 14, 15 and 17 -- to continue while the police chief, among other city and police personnel, simply looked away, and failed to investigate suspected child abuse, or to report it, as the law requires, to the state's department of children's services. Indeed, it took the accidental lead in an unrelated investigation involving the TBI eight months later to get to uncover the child rape episodes that Cleveland police officials themselves previously failed to investigate.

Yet Cleveland City Council members on Monday expressed strong support of Chief Snyder's lax handling of the affair. They, like he, audaciously said there was no problem. As Mayor Rowland put it, "it seems like the outcome is what the public would expect -- convictions and serving jail time." That's stunningly disingenuous. In this case, the delayed accidental outcome should not be allowed to whitewash or cover up the police department's initial and reprehensible neglect. The citizens of Cleveland, its children and the police department deserve better leadership.