For most Americans, the uniformed trooper prowling for speeders around the next bend of the highway sums up their image of state police. But this year has brought some pointed reminders that state police agencies are not only responsible for some sensitive functions?but can land themselves in political hot water while performing them.
On March 3, New York State Police Superintendent Harry Corbitt resigned after news reports disclosed the involvement of troopers in a domestic-violence case against a governor's aide. A week later, the man selected as his interim replacement, First Deputy Superintendent Pedro Perez, followed suit.
The back-to-back resignations were only some of the fallout from a scandal that shook the administration of New York Gov. David Paterson. Neither police official has been accused of any wrongdoing. But an investigation into the activities of members of the governor's state police security detail, who are accused of intimidating a woman from filing a domestic violence case against a close aide of the governor, will closely examine the agency's performance. (The head of the security detail reported directly to Perez.)
Handling security for governors is a key, but little-known, function of many state police agencies. So is intelligence. And inevitably, such sensitive duties can put police at the center of the often-turbulent political affairs of state governments.
In Ohio this spring, the state senate killed the nomination of Cathy Collins-Taylor, Gov. Ted Strickland's appointee for Public Safety Director. Collins-Taylor, who had been acting director pending legislative approval since September 2009, was accused of telling the Ohio Highway Patrol to call off a sting involving an inmate working at the governor's residence. The sting was to occur the same night Strickland was having dinner there with former U.S. Sen. John Glenn and his wife.
Crossing the Line?
Critics say both cases were textbook examples of state police crossing the line from nonpartisan upholders of public safety to active partisan players. In Ohio's case, the police leadership found itself facing accusations that it was more intent on saving the governor from political embarrassment than in following responsibilities to uphold the law.
“Political considerations unquestionably factored into the decision to cancel the original conveyance operation,” Ohio Inspector General Thomas P. Charles said in a report on the Collins-Taylor case.
This month, the Ohio Senate voted to end the inmate-work program at the governor's residence after Charles criticized the program for its lax oversight. In New York, the harassment scandal rekindled already-simmering doubts about the state police raised by a 2007 case involving former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was accused of using state troopers to gather political intelligence against then-State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, with whom he was feuding.
In July 2007, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (now running to succeed Gov. Paterson) issued a report accusing Spitzer's staff of deploying state police for political purposes. Spitzer publicly apologized for “allowing this esteemed institution to be drawn into this matter.”
Nevertheless, the revelations have cast a cloud over the reputations of state cops in both states. And they raise an even more crucial question: do the complex and often ambiguous duties that state police are called on to perform in many jurisdictions around the country leave them especially vulnerable to political manipulation and corruption?
State law enforcement agencies generally fall into three categories, according to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a credentialing authority since 1979 that sets standards for law enforcement. All-purpose agencies handle both the highway patrol and general criminal investigations. State highway patrols handle traffic enforcement only; and state departments of law enforcement act essentially as state-level versions of the FBI.
But in many states, the lines can seem blurred. For instance, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is responsible for state crime labs, as well as multi-jurisdictional investigations involving drugs, violent crime or domesticsecurity. In addition, the agency coordinates emergency responses during crises and provides security to the governor through the Florida Capitol Police.
The Tiger Woods Case
Some people were surprised that the Florida Highway Patrol, which is separate from FDLE, handled Tiger Woods' infamous late-night collision last fall that led to revelations about his adulterous affairs, but the state patrol is responsible for all traffic-crash investigations in unincorporated Orange County, where the Woods incident occurred.
Many states actually do manage to keep their law enforcement agencies out of sensitive political matters. Some states handle problem cases through commissions set up to oversee their law enforcement authorities. Such a commission or an internal-affairs unit would investigate allegations of corruption. If there is a federal crime such as obstruction of justice, the FBI might become involved.
In the New York case, a woman reported to the New York Police Department that a top aide to the governor had choked her. As recounted by The New York Times, which broke the story , she later testified in family court that members of the governor's security detail pressured her not to pursue criminal charges even though, as state police officers, they had no jurisdiction in the matter. Officials, including members of the governor's staff, have admitted they contacted the woman–but only to offer counseling and explain her “options.” One of the key issues under investigation is whether state police officials acted with the knowledge or direction of the governor. Paterson has denied doing anything improper. Reportedly, the head of the governor's security detail was in direct contact with the NYPD about the case, as well as with the woman.
Law professors say it is not unusual for a governor or his subordinates to check with local police about a case involving someone in the administration. It was reasonable, they add, for Paterson to want specifics about the alleged assault in order to determine whether to suspend the aide. Moreover, if he knew the aide's girlfriend, he also might want to speak with her as a concerned friend.
Some of the alleged contacts appear to have stretched the point, however. Were state officials ultimately more concerned with damping down a potential scandal that could do political damage to the governor? If so, the use of police to send the message would be particularly intimidating to any citizen, especially to someone who was already under emotional stress.
“In our system of justice, everyone should be treated the same,” said Bruce Jacob, a professor of law at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla. “Unfortunately, that's not really followed. We don't want political pressure being placed on people not to pursue their legal remedies.”
Governors themselves may occasionally be tempted to see the state police who protect them as their personal employees. In 1991, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was accused of using Arkansas State Trooper Danny Ferguson to bring then-state employee Paula Jones to his hotel room, where Jones said he tried to molest her. The so-called “Troopergate” scandal was one of the incidents that precipitated impeachment proceedings against Clinton after he became President.
Since few such stories ever make it into public light, it's impossible to know how prevalent the misuse of state police is in the nation's state capitals. But two New York State lawmakers are trying to make sure there is no longer any ambiguity.
State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and State Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) have introduced a bill to create a more independent and accountable state police agency.
“Throughout the administrations of the last three governors, the state police have been subjected to improper and coercive political influence that undermines their role as a professional law enforcement organization,” Jeffries stated in a March press release. “This legislation will help de-politicize the state police and restore desperately needed accountability to the institution.”
Their bill would limit the state police superintendent to a single 10-year term, like the FBI director, and it would subject the superintendent to public hearings on policy and personnel. It also mandates a full annual record of intra- and inter-governmental contacts between the state police and other agencies.
Jacob of Stetson University is not sure that such a total overhaul is necessary for state police around the nation.
“The governor needs protection, and the department that provides this is the state highway patrol in most states or the statewide police bureau, whatever it may be called,” he said. ” Normally, this relationship functions without a hitch.”
Jacob points out that the integrity of state officials and politicians determines the potential for abuse. “If bad people are involved in any situation, bad things are likely to result.”
Valerie Kalfrin is a free-lance writer based in Tampa.
Photo by agentkevski via Flickr.