State: Brame fostered culturally corrupt agency

Tacoma failed to stop police chief, investigation says

November 18, 2003 

David Brame ran a culturally corrupt police department, marked by "troubling management issues," a willingness to overlook misconduct and a dictatorial leadership style that required blind obedience.

Tacoma leaders missed several chances to act against the police chief, and perhaps prevent his fatal shooting of his wife, Crystal, and himself, state law enforcement officials said Monday.

"There were opportunities where action could have been taken," Attorney General Christine Gregoire said in announcing the results of a six-month criminal investigation into the Brame scandal.

The investigation resulted in no criminal charges. But it uncovered deep-seated problems that may force far-reaching changes in personnel and policies for Tacoma's police department and city administration.

Gregoire noted that employees in the Tacoma Police Department and the city were aware of Brame's marital troubles and his personal deterioration as long as six months before the April 26 shootings.

The investigation, done by the Washington State Patrol, found no basis for criminal charges against former assistant chief Catherine Woodard, a key figure in the scandal, but investigators noted she exercised "extraordinarily poor judgment," revealing "a serious lack of insight."

A broader federal investigation of public corruption in the City of Tacoma and Pierce County is not over. U.S. Attorney John McKay said that inquiry revolves around corruption in public contracts. He would not provide specifics.

Woodard's behavior represented only one aspect of the Police Department's problems, investigators said. State Patrol Chief Ronal Serpas noted that cultural problems in police departments put officers in a position where "they see corruption running rampant and they just lay low."

Brame was part of that problem, Serpas said, because "he wasn't driving accountability."

Investigator Brian Ursino pointed to incidents where Police Department employees failed to recognize potential problems of sloppy procedure.

"What we find shocking, they don't," he said.

Despite the absence of criminal charges, the State Patrol found multiple examples of potential misconduct in the Police Department, dating as far back as 1988, and as recent as July. They include:

•Possible payroll violations, which will be reviewed by the state auditor.

•Failure by police employees to forward a 1988 rape allegation against Brame to Pierce County prosecutors.

•Lack of a policy in the Police Department to deal with complaints involving prominent citizens.

•Possible membership in "sex clubs" attended by current and former members of the department, and the impact of membership on promotions.

"This misconduct must be thoroughly investigated and reviewed, and if sustained, appropriate sanctions must be imposed," investigators said.

The statement comes from a 23-page summary of investigative findings, submitted to Gregoire by Brian Moran, the state's chief criminal prosecutor, and Mark Larson, chief criminal prosecutor for King County.

The State Patrol will conduct a follow-up internal review of the Police Department. The review, expected to last up to two months, could lead to disciplinary actions, including firing of some individuals, investigators said.

The internal review gives investigators more leverage in questioning, Serpas said. In a criminal investigation, city and Police Department employees can refuse to answer incriminating questions. In an internal review, the rules change.

"In an administrative investigation, (if) they do not talk, they forfeit their job," Serpas said.

Conversely, individuals no longer employed by the city and the department cannot be compelled to answer questions, Serpas admitted.

Woodard and former City Manager Ray Corpuz, who appointed Brame chief and declined to investigate charges of domestic violence against him, no longer work for the city.

Gregoire said the vast majority of Police Department employees are "dedicated and caring professionals," and the investigation should not be taken as an indictment of them.

"It's top management," she said. "The culture that is disturbing starts at the top."

Gregoire said the department's cultural deficiencies predated Brame's arrival.

"We do not believe that it originated with David Brame," she said. "It became worse when he became chief."

Members of Crystal Brame's family said the investigation confirms their belief that city leaders could have prevented her death. They have filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking unspecified damages.

Family members did not comment directly after the release of the State Patrol's report. Instead, they released a statement through their attorney, Paul Luvera of Seattle.

"Attorney General Gregoire's comments about rampant problems and corrupt culture within the Police Department are a ringing indictment of misconduct within the highest levels of Tacoma's law enforcement and city government," the statement said. "The report in no way exonerates the city for its actions, which ultimately led to Crystal's murder."

Members of Brame's family have argued that he "snapped" on April 26, and his actions that day do not reflect his true nature.

"David is our son, and we don't believe anything until it's proven," Brame's mother, Bev Brame, said Monday.

At City Hall, Mayor Bill Baarsma, citing the depth of problems in the Police Department, said City Manager Jim Walton "should seriously think about" removing Don Ramsdell as interim chief.

Baarsma emphasized that "Ramsdell is the genuine article" and he's very pleased with his performance as chief, but "in terms of long-range goals and moving the city forward" Walton might need to think about whether someone from within the department is the right person to be running it, Baarsma said.

Several council members, however, disagreed.

"I think Ramsdell is doing his best to try to break some of the culture," Councilman Kevin Phelps said.

Because Ramsdell has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, it's probably best to leave him in place until the internal investigation is concluded and city officials have a good idea of what kind of permanent leader the department needs, Phelps said.

Councilmen Bill Evans and Mike Lonergan agreed with that approach.

Within the Police Department, leaders reacted to the investigation report with a mixture of hope and gloom.

"There are a lot of things we could do differently and better," said Pat Frantz, president of Local 6 of the International Union of Police Associations, the 300-member union that represents rank-and-file police officers. "I see the department moving in a positive direction with Ramsdell. It will get better, but right now the guys are feeling like they are being torn apart."

Ramsdell said the department will continue to work with the State Patrol, and noted that the department is developing a new policy on domestic violence and reviewing its hiring practices in an effort to restore public trust.

The state's investigative report concluded with several recommendations. The first is the internal review by the State Patrol, scheduled to begin in a few days.

Another recommendation states that the Police Department needs to develop clear policies about how to treat internal complaints against employees involving potential criminal matters.

Gregoire's report cites multiple examples "where members of the Tacoma Police Department recognized possible criminal law violations, but did not treat them as such."

Incidents mentioned include an allegation that a prominent businessman tried to bribe a police officer; an allegation that a prominent Tacoma figure was suspected of patronizing a prostitute; and that Corpuz might have been tipped off to an investigation of insurance fraud at his home.

The report notes that "most, if not all" of those incidents might not have been proved to be criminal acts.

Investigators could not answer one key question: Why was Brame hired and promoted?

The report notes the question was not part of the criminal investigation. After the shootings, city leaders commissioned an administrative review by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to resolve the questions surrounding Brame's hiring. The WASPC review is expected to resume now that the criminal investigation has concluded.

The report's final recommendation revolves around domestic violence by police officers.

Investigators noted that Tacoma has made progress in developing new policies to handle such situations, but they "must become part of the Tacoma Police Department's culture."

News Tribune staff writers Kris Sherman, Stacey Mulick and Karen Hucks contributed to this report.
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@mail.tribnet.com

SIDEBAR: KEY PEOPLE AND FINDINGS

David Brame

Police chief

As chief, he ran the Tacoma Police Department like a dictatorship. In his final months, he let his personal problems seep into the office, destroying his career and putting subordinates in questionable situations.

Ray Corpuz

Former city manager

He told investigators that he had no indications that Police Chief Brame was acting erratically because of his pending divorce. State officials say he was aware of Brame's despair as early as February but took no action.

Catherine Woodard

Retired assist. chief

She won't be charged with a crime, but state investigators say she demonstrated "extraordinarily poor judgment." Investigators say Woodard "elected to choose sides, dismiss Crystal Brame's troubling reports and serve as a pawn in Chief Brame's attempt to reconcile with his wife."

Don Ramsdell

Interim police chief

State Patrol officials want to know why - on his watch as acting chief - assistant chief Woodard was allowed to remove items from David Brame's former office after she was placed on administrative leave. Mayor Bill Baarsma wonders whether having a chief from within the department is right during an internal affairs investigation.

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