By Gerhard Schneibel
The Sandy Springs Police Department is experiencing a dramatic shift in a culture gone wild as a result of the investigation that led this month to the resignation of the police chief and the departures of three other senior officers.
City Attorney Wendell Willard said the outside investigation by U.S. Investigative Security Services and the subsequent personnel changes were necessary, but he doesn’t expect criminal charges against any officers.
“When you have things that are like this happening — this, what I call culture, developing in the Police Department — you stop it. And the city took very proactive actions to make sure that this was not going to continue,” he said. “I think the officers in the department are glad to see that these things have stopped because it has an effect on the morale of the good officers when they see someone abusing or misusing their position.”
Those abuses, according to city officials and the investigation report, included gifts to officers, excessive outside work forcing changes to duty schedules, and an extravagant private training session at which officers fired off tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of ammunition from automatic weapons and caroused on dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles.
Police Chief Gene Wilson resigned July 12, six days before the city released details on the outside investigation into his department.
“It has become apparent recently that I no longer have the confidence of the Mayor and Council,” Wilson wrote in his resignation letter. He had no comment when reached by phone.
Maj. Jamey Moore, the head of the Operating Division, also resigned.
Maj. David Bertrand was named acting chief. He then fired Lt. Trudi Vaughan and Sgt. Tanya Smith for violating general orders.
“I think that what we’ve done is clean house thoroughly. I don’t know that anybody else has been as open and as rigorous about cleaning house as we have been,” Mayor Eva Galambos said during her State of the City address July 21.
Vaughan, however, denies that she is paying the price for mistakes on the job. She said Bertrand discriminated against her because she is gay. She hired a lawyer, Edward Marger, and said she will file a lawsuit if she is not reinstated.
Bertrand “protects the white heterosexual males that are in the department that have done the same or similar things that I’ve been doing,” she said. “It’s been common knowledge and practice for years. I’ve never hidden anything.”
Vaughan had a name-clearing hearing with the Police Department the morning of July 22, but her lawyer and the media were kept out.
“That’s a personnel matter,” Bertrand said. “That’s not open for the public.”
The revelation of trouble in the Police Department began April 10 with a private training session for the Special Operations Unit at a ranch in Madison belonging to Bruce Weiner.
Weiner is the chairman of Friends of Sandy Springs, a nonprofit organization that supports the police, fire and parks departments. He owns Sandy Springs-based Homeland Self Storage and is a federally licensed firearms dealer, a former Fulton County sheriff’s reserve deputy and an antique car collector, according to the investigation report.
Through Friends of Sandy Springs, he has bought equipment for the police, including at least one motorcycle and a technologically advanced camera car that can scan and remember license plates.
Vaughan organized the training session at Weiner’s ranch. She said her superior, Moore, told her Wilson had approved it. Moore told investigators he had inferred Wilson’s approval during a December meeting.
According to the investigation report, officers in civilian clothes drove to the ranch in unmarked cars. They spent 1½ to two hours shooting $20,000 to $30,000 worth of Weiner’s ammunition with his weapons, including an AK-47 and a machine gun. Then they had a barbecue lunch before riding Weiner’s dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles without protective gear across a jump ramp. Two of the vehicles flipped over during the afternoon. The officers went out to dinner about 4 p.m.
Officer Hyon Yi made digital movies of parts of the day.
“There was nothing about that training day that was against policy,” Vaughan said. “My guys have been through such hectic schedules since November 2007 … I thought it was a good thing.”
Weiner gave Vaughan knives to be distributed to all of the officers as gifts. They consistently told investigators they were “uncomfortable” accepting the gifts, but doing so wasn’t against department policy because apparently nothing was asked in return.
At other times, Weiner gave Wilson handguns and a rifle. He accepted them and told investigators he did so because the value of the guns was insignificant compared with the value of Weiner’s other contributions to the department. The chief later returned the weapons.
Weiner could not be reached for comment but reportedly asked for nothing in return for his gifts.
But his generosity could have caused major conflicts of interest, Bertrand told investigators. “He could have 20 kilos of cocaine in his car and be stopped, and nobody’s going to investigate him now because he’s given gifts to all of them.”
Van Westmoreland, the treasurer of Friends of Sandy Springs and a member of the city’s Design Review Board, said Weiner’s behavior was not inappropriate.
“That’s really not a Friends of Sandy Springs event. That’s Bruce’s private business, as far as I know,” he said. “He’s been incredibly generous, and I would consider him to be one of Sandy Springs’ most generous citizens.”
Falsified Time Sheets
Police around the nation commonly work part-time jobs during off-duty hours. In Sandy Springs, compensation for those jobs is limited to $50 an hour, and officers are not allowed to adjust their duty schedules or work for establishments that sell alcohol.
But Vaughan is accused of allowing officers on shifts she supervised to modify their schedules to work extra jobs, of collecting payments in cash and distributing the money to those officers, and of arranging extra work for herself and other officers at La Dona Bar in Copeland Village.
She submitted an extra work permit indicating she was working for Copeland Village, but investigators found she was being paid by the owner of the bar.
In one instance, she instructed Yi to complete a daily activity report indicating he did four hours of administrative work on a hit-and-run case to make up for a discrepancy on his time sheet, investigators found.
Yi told Internal Affairs Lt. Jim Fraker that he was worried he would lose his job as a result of the April 10 training session and the altered time sheet. In both instances, he was reporting to Vaughan.
According to the investigation transcript, Fraker told him: “I don’t go on witch hunts. But I am, for lack of a better word, pissed about this one because of the position you’re being put in … and somebody who’s in a supervisory position shouldn’t put you in that.”
Wilson sent a memo to the department’s sworn personnel July 4 addressing the issue of cash payments. “I want to make this crystal clear,” he wrote. “We have built this department on a foundation of integrity. … As the Chief, I will not tolerate criminal violations. … There will not be a ‘wink and a nod’ to taking cash for extra jobs performed and this income not be reported.”
Vaughan, however, said officers did not violate department policy. She said everything she did was common practice.
“At no time did any officer ever double-dip. They were pulled off on-duty assignments to work on off-duty assignments, but they did not get paid by the city and by the employer at the same time frame,” she said.
At one point she asked an officer to work an extra job before canceling a robbery detail he was working for the department, the investigation report states.
During her State of the City speech, Galambos expressed gratitude for Wilson, who she said did “a fabulous job getting the department started.”
The department’s internal investigation, she said, warranted City Manager John McDonough’s hiring of Charlotte, N.C.-based U.S. Investigative Security Services.
Aside from Moore, Vaughan and Smith, the external investigation concluded that six other officers committed infractions worthy of reprimand: Fraker, Yi, Sgt. Joshua Emmett, Officer Jeff Byrd, Officer Pat Graham and Detective Tiffany Davis. All six remain with the department.
“You have to know that our city manager is a lieutenant colonel in the Reserve of the Marines, and he is straight as an arrow. And he will not tolerate any kind of infractions. In some other police departments, some of these things may have gone on, too. But in our Police Department, they are not going to be tolerated,” Galambos said.
According to Willard, the department will be revising its policies about what officers can accept as gifts.
“There’s some gray area that needs to be reviewed in terms of what are the limitations of gifts that can be accepted,” he said.
Bertrand couldn’t say how long he will be at the helm of the department, but he stressed the primary goal of the department now is to “have the confidence of the community.”
“We’re just going to go forward. We aren’t going to look back. We’ve got a job to do here,” he said. “We’re going to ensure the citizens of Sandy Springs that we’re going to keep up our part of the bargain, which is to fight crime.”