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October 04, 2006
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Police conduct at issue in Lorain, Ohio

Mark Puente and John Caniglia, Plain Dealer Reporters
Plain Dealer
Copyright 2006 Plain Dealer Publishing Co.

See court documents, discipline files and a list of complaints against officers.

Lorain - One police dispatcher slept as two 9-1-1 calls rang 51 times. The Fire Department had to wake her up.

An officer put a suspect in his cruiser without finding the gun hidden in the man's pants cuff.

Another officer reported his personal car stolen.

He admitted later that he had smashed it into a pole.

All of them remain on the job at the Lorain Police Department.

Records show about a third of the department's 119 officers and dispatchers have been disciplined or sued for alleged inappropriate conduct since 2000.

The city has paid more than a half-million dollars in legal fees and settlements for claims against officers during that time, according to auditor's records.

Court and police records show at least 72 instances of officers or dispatchers fighting, drinking to excess, losing their guns, insulting residents, harassing women or violating other policies - all in the past six years.

They include:

A SWAT team member who left his weapons in his garage. A friend found his 9 mm pistol while getting beer and fired 18 rounds through a garage door and into a neighbor's home.

A sergeant who was drinking in an Amherst club and left without his jacket, which contained a loaded pistol. A bartender found the gun.

An officer who lost his 9 mm gun and never found it. The same officer was charged last month with drunken driving.

An officer who stopped to pick up another officer at a convenience store on his way to a 9-1-1 call. Then he got stuck behind a train.

The Plain Dealer reviewed every officer's personnel file after several recent events called into question the conduct of several Lorain officers, including a drunken officer who was accused in July of flashing his badge in a bar and picking a fight with a bouncer.

In August, 28-year police veteran Jesus Sanchez filed court documents accusing fellow officers of routine sexual misconduct that he said goes unpunished. Sanchez made the allegations after resident Sarah Long accused him of showing up at her home, pinning her to a wall, kissing her and rubbing against her body.

Long sued Sanchez and the city but agreed to drop Sanchez in exchange for his testimony about other officers. She continues to sue the city.

Police Chief Cel Rivera has asked Elyria police to investigate Sanchez's behavior. Separately, sheriff's Capt. Rich Resendez, a former Lorain officer, is investigating Sanchez's allegations about other officers.

Detective Buddy Sivert, the police union president, would not comment on The Plain Dealer's findings except to say that unfair allegations come with the job of police officer.

Chief Rivera defends Lorain's officers

Rivera said the number of discipline cases surprised him. He said his officers "work hard. They're passionate. They're assertive. They're going to make mistakes because of the pressure they're under.

"Sometimes I get a complaint about an officer who said something bad to a citizen. And I think to myself, 'Why would anyone say that to someone?' Then I get in my car and I hear the abuse that these guys take. They put up with so much. When I go out on calls with them, I see total disrespect for them."

Sanchez listed more than a half-dozen cases of what he called sexual misconduct. "In virtually all of these instances, this sexual activity was not consensual," he said. He did not provide names or dates.

Lorain police records show two complaints of sexual misconduct since 2000. In one case, an officer was sent to help a possibly suicidal woman. He later became involved with her sexually, records show.

Police files also show more than a dozen instances of officers disciplined for disrespectful behavior toward the public. Some cursed at drivers. One told a woman her neighborhood was known as "shantytown." Another told a domestic abuse victim that women abuse the system.

Worse, the files show more than a dozen cases of officers using unjustified force or misusing their authority - from using a stun gun on a handcuffed prisoner to harassing an ex-wife's boyfriend.

One off-duty officer was cut off in traffic. He went to the motorist's workplace the next day and confronted the man, his personnel file shows. The officer said the other man picked a fight. The officer was counseled about his behavior, the least serious form of discipline.

Policies dictate escalating punishments

Lorain police policies call for escalating levels of discipline, based on an officer's history and the seriousness of the offense.

The first step is counseling, followed by a verbal reprimand, a written reprimand, suspension and firing. The chief can impose up to a three-day suspension, but anything more severe must be approved by the safety service director.

Rivera recommended last month that officer Daniel Bozsoki be fired for using a stun gun on a handcuffed prisoner May 1. He recommended that Sgt. James Wolford be suspended 10 days for calling a judge a profane name behind his back.

Those recommendations were stronger than most discipline Rivera has chosen in recent years.

Sanchez, for example, received a written reprimand after he was accused of sexually harassing Sarah Long in 2002.

A dispatcher who failed to send a car to a break-in got the same punishment.

A dispatcher who let a civilian past security - thinking he was a police officer - received a verbal reprimand.

Rivera acknowledged that he may be too soft on some officers but that he's tough when the behavior calls for it.

"We're not looking to fire everyone who makes a mistake. On serious offenses, we go after our guys."

In 1995, Rivera fired Wolford for using excessive force during an arrest. An arbitrator reinstated the officer after a federal jury cleared him in a civil lawsuit. Rivera said he tries to impose the minimum discipline necessary to get his message across.

"We ask, 'Will the officer do it again?' he said. "Some of these sound terrible, but when you look at the facts and the officers involved, they're not as bad."

Councilwoman Kathy Tavenner said too many officers use their badges to break the law and intimidate people. She said Rivera and Mayor Craig Foltin, a congressional candidate in the 13th District, have lost control of the police force.

Rivera "is paid good but has not stepped up to stop this stuff," Tavenner said.

Rivera has been on the force since 1971 and chief since 1995. He is paid $95,344 a year.

Responding to Tavenner's comments, Foltin said, "Everyone has an opinion, but the bottom line is, the city is pretty safe."

Rape last year dropped 35 percent and burglary 7 percent, according to police statistics. Robbery rose 26 percent and vehicle theft 81 percent.

Rivera said Tavenner praised the department as recently as a year ago. "Why the sudden change?" he asked. "She has absolutely nothing to base that on."

Councilman Phil Betleski, chairman of council's Public Safety Committee, finds the sexual allegations troubling, but he believes the department, overall, is efficient and well-run.

"There will always be someone who pushes the limits," he said. "Any time you get 80, 90 or 100 guys together, you will have some problems."

Former police chief says morale is low

John Malinovsky, police chief from 1969 to 1993, thinks a lack of discipline has tarnished the department's image.

Officers still come to him for advice because morale is low, he said.

"The department has deteriorated to such a condition that it is mind-boggling," said Malinovsky, who retired after 42 years on the force. "For the past 11 years, I have been totally dismayed and disgusted at the performances of the Lorain Police Department."

Rivera declined to speak about Malinovsky specifically but insisted the department has "made great strides."

Low morale is not unusual among police officers, who operate every day in a world of violence and tragedy. But morale problems have boiled up into public view repeatedly in Lorain.

Four current officers in July took the civil service exam for the much smaller Avon Police Department. All passed, and two were put on a waiting list for future hiring.

Another officer, fed up with his job, parked his cruiser at the station, put his gun and uniform in the trunk and walked home. He returned to the department after a four-day leave.

Rivera said the police force is frustrated because the city has no jail to hold criminals and the county jail is full.

"Thugs know that they can get away with anything and never get arrested," he said.

Charles Lieberman, professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said police problems sometimes reflect issues that trouble an entire city government. Since 1990, 14 Lorain city and school officials, including police officers, have been convicted of crimes. The latest was Safety Service Director Craig Miller, who was convicted Aug. 31 of obstructing a police investigation.

After Miller's conviction, Foltin's election opponent, Democrat Betty Sutton, accused him of coddling unethical behavior by refusing to fire Miller, who later resigned.

Foltin spokeswoman Mary Anne Sharkey said Sutton merely tried to stir up trouble for political gain.

As for misconduct, Foltin said, with a department of more than 100 officers, "these things happen sometimes."

Lorain resident Melissa Foisy is less forgiving. Last December, an officer, off duty and drinking, tried to stop her son Matthew from speeding in a parking lot. The officer stopped the car, reached in, grabbed the teen and berated him for having a behavior disorder, according to his personnel file. Rivera gave the officer a written reprimand.

"Police are supposed to be protecting the city," Foisy said, "not threatening the people who pay their salaries."

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters: 440-934-0524

Full story: Police conduct at issue in Lorain, Ohio

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