A police officer's most powerful weapon isn't a gun, it’s the badge. The badge commands respect and demands a code of conduct for those who wear it. But what should be done when officers violate the codes they've sworn to uphold?
Mill Creek Police Department
Mill Creek Police Chief Bob Crannell faced that question when allegations surfaced earlier this year that two of his patrol officers were having secret sexual rendezvous. The incidents happened at an abandoned house, in a nature preserve, and at a construction site - all while on duty.
"I was very surprised,” said Chief Crannell. Both were experienced officers with unblemished records. He said handling the case was “extremely difficult” because he knew the officers and their families well.
Mill Creek is a small department with just 26 sworn officers.
Chief Crannell put the two officers on paid leave and handed over the case to an outside investigator. That investigator interviewed more than a dozen officers and reviewed hundreds of documents including dispatch records, e-mails and text messages.
The investigation cost Mill Creek $18,000. The conclusion: The two officers "engaged in sexual activity while on duty approximately ten times ... even though they understood their behavior was inappropriate.”
“I think the public has the expectation that police are ethical and moral and they are sworn to uphold the law and act as a model for the community and in this case those two officers failed that obligation,” said Crannell.
The chief warned the officers they would probably be fired for conduct unbecoming and neglect of duty if the case went to a disciplinary hearing.
"Absent sufficient and convincing circumstances or exonerating facts there was a high likelihood would have terminated them,” said Crannell.
Both officers resigned.
Were Mill Creek’s actions too harsh? For answers, we went to a national expert on police ethics. Neil Melton is head of the state board that regulates the practice of law enforcement in Minnesota.
"Yes, it's fair. They're paid by the public to serve and protect the public. To remove yourself from public service by having sex on duty absolutely violates the trust of the citizens,” said Melton.
Bellevue Police Department
This isn't just happening at one police department. We found a similar case in Bellevue. It also involved allegations of sex on duty but it was handled much differently. Mill Creek's investigation lasted two months. Bellevue's just three days.
The Bellevue case involved a male officer with eight years on the department and a female dispatcher. According to an internal report obtained by the KING 5 Investigators, in 2008 the two had sexual relations while on and off duty in the police administrative office in Bellevue City Hall, including a bathroom and conference room used by the chief and command staff.
"My first reaction was shock. Certainly, because I knew the employee, he worked directly for me,” said Bellevue Police Chief Linda Pillo.
In fact, he worked in the chief’s office. But she didn’t learn of the allegations until 2009. She immediately launched an investigation.
During extensive questioning the dispatcher said she and the officer had sex in the police department at least eleven times and that one of those times caused a delay in the officer performing police duties.
A suspect had stolen a police car and hit two people. But the officer was in the bathroom having sex when he was needed to help send out a press release. Even so, he was never fully questioned.
"The officer took full responsibility immediately. And there really were no questions about what the other employee had said,” said Pillo.
The chief offered him a deal: he could go back to patrol with a 4 percent pay cut and she would drop the investigation.
It's a decision that has some officers quietly seething.
"It was a discipline that I feel was appropriate and sent a strong message that that type of behavior was not tolerated in this police department,” said Pillo.
“Some people tell us, in your own department, that it sent a message that he got away with it,” said reporter Linda Byron.
“Well I'm sorry to hear that, because he did not get away with it,” said Pillo.
Melton says the Bellevue officer should have been fired.
“I don't think that's an acceptable outcome, would people perceive this as it being swept under the rug? Did this officer receive preferential treatment? I don't think the public good is served by a decision like that,” said Melton.
Sex in the workplace isn't a crime and it happens in the private sector, too. But the badge that commands respect, demands it, too.
"Because if the public doesn't have faith that the police can police themselves, then we've lost all credibility,” said Melton.