Special Reports

Rank and file have duty to speak up about internal problems

After David Brame fatally shot his wife and then killed himself last April, one of the first official responses was a call for an outsider to run the Tacoma Police Department.

Because no one was sure how far the investigation into Brame would permeate, the theory was that a professional cop unrelated to anyone here was needed to give credibility to the department.

It was a great idea, but it didn't happen. After flirting with an outsider, City Manager Jim Walton promoted from within - selecting veteran Don Ramsdell.

While the decision raised eyebrows, it raised few protests. Ramsdell was labeled a good guy with the respect of his fellow officers. He made noises about reforms, but the department is still managed essentially by the same men and women who were running it before Brame's crime.

Without saying so, Walton's choice of an insider absolved the Police Department of any culpability in Brame's unseemly rise through the ranks. Any look at the department focused on Brame, leaving the impression that problems died with him.

So rather than look at a police culture that both produced and protected David Brame, we spent our time eyeballing the civilians in city government - the mayor, the manager, the council, the city attorney, the department heads.

All continue to be worthy of scrutiny. If anything, the state investigation makes former City Manager Ray Corpuz even harder to defend.

But state Attorney General Christine Gregoire and State Patrol Chief Ronal Serpas reminded us Monday that the police brass - present and past - have gotten a free pass they don't deserve.

Gregoire called for an investigation into "a very troubled management culture" at the Tacoma Police Department that needs an overhaul. Her office used faint praise when it said the state investigation "found no evidence that the Tacoma Police Department is a criminally corrupt organization."

But descriptions by Gregoire and Serpas suggest a department that is corrupt in many other ways.

An internal affairs investigation will look into evidence already identified by the Patrol of unsatisfactory performance, unbecoming conduct, immoral conduct, failure to investigate domestic violence, conducting personal business on duty, untruthfulness and improper handling of evidence. And just in case the department wants to employ the common defense of blaming it all on David Brame, state investigators are clear: "David Brame certainly did not create all of these deficiencies."

Not a picture that will restore confidence in the TPD.

The Patrol's investigation isn't a criminal probe. Instead, it could lead to officers being disciplined, even fired, for breaking rules and policies. But any such decisions will be made by Walton - or his successor. Can a culture be changed by a city hall that permitted and even fostered that culture?

Gregoire also reached an interesting conclusion - that the department's rank and file share no blame with top managers. She didn't say little blame. She said no blame. And Serpas decided that because a police force is a quasi-military organization, the foot soldiers and even the line commanders are not empowered to challenge the bosses, to challenge the culture.

But that presumes that police unions are powerless. And it leads to an odd conclusion that only when cops get a few stripes - or perhaps an office with a door - are they susceptible to a corrupt culture. It perpetuates the notion that the rank and file have no responsibility to act when they see bad stuff in the department. If you're taught to let it go as a rookie, are you more likely or less likely to let it go when you're a captain?

Gregoire is probably correct that the vast majority of street cops are trying to do a good job in difficult circumstances. All the more reason to want them watching the department as closely as they watch the streets.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@mail.tribnet.com