Police car cameras don't lie, but did Fla. cops?
By Kelli Kennedy
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Veteran Hollywood Police Officer Dewey Pressley said he hated lying. But if bending the truth a little would keep a fellow officer out of trouble, well, he was all for it.
A dashboard police camera video that surfaced recently showed Pressley chuckling as he wrote a fake police report, calling his creativity "a little Walt Disney" so another officer wouldn't get in trouble for rear-ending a 23-year-old woman's car in February.
Pressley and four others have been suspended with pay pending an investigation after video of the accident and the officers' attempt to cover it up became public last week, the latest Internet sensation in a line of unsettling police dashcam videos.
On the video, the officers, with calculating authority, are heard laughing about how drunk 23-year-old Alexandra Torrens-Vilas is and how they plan to "hang her out to dry" so the officer that hit her car doesn't get in trouble.
The accident occurred when Vilas had to unexpectedly stop her car. She said she was driving home from a party where she had found a stray cat, and it jumped out of the window. She got out of the car to chase the cat, and that's when officer Joel Francisco rammed the back of the car, she said.
February's crash was Francisco's seventh accident with a patrol car since 2000, according to personnel records.
Authorities said they gave Vilas a breathalyzer test, which showed she was about twice the legal drinking limit.
She admits having a few beers, but her attorney questioned the validity of the test, saying the same officer who gave it to her was the one who fudged the reports.
"I'm gonna tell you exactly how to word this so we can get him off the hook," Pressley says on the video. Later he remarks: "I don't like making things up ever because it's wrong but if I have to bend it a little to protect a cop I'm gonna."
In the report, Pressley wrote Vilas got in the left lane and slammed on the brakes and blamed her for the accident.
The state attorney's office is assisting Hollywood Police to determine whether charges will be brought against any of the officers.
Vilas' attorney Mark Gold, founder of the law firm The Ticket Clinic, said the officers committed perjury when they told the same story in a deposition under oath.
Vilas was charged with DUI and a traffic violation, but the state attorney's office dropped the charges, saying the video raised questions about the officers' account of the crash.
Vilas did spend two nights in jail and missed a semester at Georgetown University, where she is studying international economics, because she wasn't allowed to leave the state while free on bail.
"I was very shocked especially hearing the language they used," she said. "I was in disbelief that they would do so much to cover a fender bender."
Hollywood Police Chief Chadwick Wagner said ethics training has been a priority since he took over more than a year ago.
"I have personally installed integrity and ethics measures in practically ever scenario our employees confront daily," said Wagner, who promised swift action when the investigation is completed.
Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein has called for the FBI or another outside agency to investigate the police department. Saying it was too shocking to keep from the public, Finkelstein gave the video to a lawyer's blog, which posted it to the Internet.
Other recent cases involving the officers under investigation are now being reviewed by the Broward public defender's office, Finkelstein said.
The agency has had a string of bungles in recent years. In 2007, four Hollywood police officers were convicted of protecting a heroin shipment they thought belonged to New York-based mobsters. Instead, it was an FBI sting and federal authorities said they could have nabbed more corrupt officers but department higher-ups alerted colleagues.
"The culture in that police department may be spawning that type of scandal on a regular basis that may not be caught on videotape," Finkelstein said.
According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2003, 54 percent of police departments in cities with more than 250,000 people use in-car cameras.
The videos are considered public record in most states. Oklahoma amended a state law in 2005 to keep them private.
"Originally (dashboard cameras) were there to protect the cops against the citizens but nowadays it's to protect the citizens against the cops, too," said John Wesley Hall, president of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers based in Washington D.C.