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Webster Groves police
fire three in sex case


November 13, 2000
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Webster Groves police
fire three in sex case

(WEBSTER GROVES, MO.) -- Police in Florissant had better not swear inside headquarters. The chief banned profanity two years ago after three of his officers were accused of having sex with two teen-age girls in an Explorer unit.

In Eureka, the chief abolished the Explorer program after three officers were accused of having sexual encounters with a teen-age member.

These are two examples of how police here have coped with officers accused of crossing the line into inappropriate behavior with teens.

Now it's Webster Groves' turn: The Police Department fired three officers last month amid allegations they were having "inappropriate contact" with teen-age girls, a city official confirmed. A fourth officer resigned.

An anonymous letter to the Police Department led to the disciplinary action, sources said. The letter was said to implicate the officers and two girls, ages 16 and 17.

Webster Groves officials have refused to disclose what they found the men guilty of doing, except to say that the officers were fired for violating department rules.

City Manager Milton Matthews also refused to identify the four officers.

"You can't just walk in off the street and look at these records," he told a reporter who sought last week to examine city payroll records.

Courts have nearly always ruled that government payroll records are open to public scrutiny.

Missouri's Sunshine Law requires government entities to make public the names of employees who are hired, fired, promoted or demoted, said John Hessel, an attorney specializing in First Amendment and municipal law and who represents the Post-Dispatch.

In response to a request for the names of the four officers, Matthews produced 12 pages from police payroll records from Aug. 25 to Nov. 2. He said the names of the four officers appear somewhere in the list, and reporters could guess the names by seeing who was on the list in August and who was not there by November.

From the first date to the last, the names of five police officers disappear from the payroll records.

Matthews said he would neither identify nor confirm the names of the disciplined officers.

The fired officers are fighting to get back their jobs, city officials said. The city's personnel board is expected to review their appeals within the next few weeks.

Some police departments refer allegations of wrongdoing to outside agencies. In St. Louis County, some municipalities have referred such cases to either the county police or the Missouri Highway Patrol. Webster Groves officials have said that the city manager and the police chief conducted the investigation, which began at the end of September and lasted about two weeks.

The two Webster Groves officials turned over their findings to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch. He has said he disapproved of the officers' actions but that the investigation produced no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Case "does not warrant this scrutiny"

Police Chief Dale Curtis said he has made no policy changes as a result of the firings. He said he couldn't think of "any stronger message" than firing the officers.

"The newspaper's interest in this is strictly salacious," Curtis said. "The situation, while improper, does not warrant this scrutiny. No criminal wrongdoing occurred. It was a violation of our department policies. This police department simply has high standards, and if questions about an officer's behavior arise we handle the situation as need be."

A city official who did not want to be identified said all of the officers are married.

Curtis would not say whether he would ask state officials to suspend or revoke the officers' certificates to operate as police officers.

Roger Goldman, a St. Louis University law professor, said the best way to prevent police misconduct is to make sure officers lose their rights to work in other jurisdictions.

"The trouble is that they get terminated and just do this somewhere else," Goldman said. "Sex is a big problem. It is a problem for correction officers and police."

Goldman said nearly a dozen police officers either had their certificates revoked or were placed on probation for sexual misconduct last year by Missouri. In all, 45 police officers' certificates were revoked or the officers were placed on probation.

In Missouri, a peace officer can lose a state licensing certificate because of a felony conviction, or for some misdemeanor convictions that involve moral turpitude such as theft or perjury, Goldman said.

An officer also can lose a certificate for lying under oath, addiction to alcohol or drugs, and "gross misconduct indicating inability to function as a peace officer," he said, quoting the rule book.

"Choices and responsibilities"

In the wake of the Webster Groves dismissals, Curtis said he is using support and administrative staff to replace the fired officers. The department has shrunk to 41 officers from 46.

"There was not anything we would have or will do differently," Curtis said. "We can monitor our employees, but it still comes down to an individual officer's choices and responsibility."

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Moonier said the behavior problems of some officers are not much different from the rest of society.

But he said police should be held to higher standards.

Goldman had a similar view.

He said the question is whether an officer is abusing his authority: "If you have a vulnerable person and you are in power, you can abuse your office."

In 1998, a former Ferguson police officer was sentenced to nine months in jail and five years' probation after pleading guilty of statutory rape and sodomy. Ronald R. Buford admitted in court that he had sexual relations several times with an underage girl at his home and at an apartment in Ferguson.

Buford was on duty and was supposed to be patrolling the streets of Ferguson when he was meeting the girl and having sex with her, police said then.

In Eureka, Police Chief Michael Wiegand said officers were devastated after discovering three fellow officers had sexual encounters with a teen-age Explorer.

Last year, a judge sentenced former Eureka police Sgt. Kent Baker to two years in prison for sexual encounters in 1997 and 1998 with a teen-age Explorer.

Two other Eureka officers pleaded guilty. Michael Longshaw, then 27, pleaded guilty to four counts of statutory sodomy and was sentenced in May to 90 days in jail and probation. Lance Bowen, then 30, pleaded guilty to one count of statutory sodomy and got probation.

Wiegand said he offers counseling to officers in his department. He also eliminated the Explorer program.

"Rollerbabe"

In Florissant, Police Chief Robert G. Lowery Sr. kept the Explorers but barred officers from accompanying youths of the opposite sex on patrol.

He said his officers undergo sensitivity and sexual harassment training. Lowery also banned officers from using profanity. He said he doesn't want off-color language to be mistaken for sexual overtures.

In 1998, a St. Louis County grand jury refused to indict three former Florissant police officers accused of having sex with two teen-age Explorers. McCulloch, the county prosecutor, said there was substantial evidence that the officers had sex with the Explorers "on duty, off duty, on drive-alongs."

But he said there was no substantial evidence that the sex acts had occurred before the Explorers had turned 17. If the girls had been younger, the prosecutor said, the officers could have been charged with statutory rape.

Lowery said he settled the case by asking the officers to resign.

In Illinois, Clinton County Sheriff Paul Spaur was caught having Internet encounters with a teen-age girl who went by the nickname Rollerbabe.

In 1998, Spaur, 56, racked up $ 1,509 in bills during online chats with Brenda Thoma, then 18. The chats occurred on a Clinton County computer.

Spaur also spent $ 179 for a computer scanner to allow photos to be sent from one computer to another. Then the sheriff sent the equipment to the teen. Later, Thoma's mother complained to county officials, spurring an investigation.

Spaur had to reimburse the county but was never prosecuted. Within months after the allegations surfaced, he was re-elected.

(iSyndicate; St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Nov. 12, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.



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