FBI and the local police.

One morning as I sat in my office at Western Washington University a local police officer who was also a part-time student came in the office and said: “Boy, have I a great story to tell you!”  “Wot’s up?” I asked and he told me the following.

“Last night, Speedo Suthas, Assistant Chief of Police, and a sergeant removed a Mexican prisoner out of the jail, put him in a paddy wagon they borrowed from the Sheriff’s Department (located across the street), took him to a gravel pit in Skagit County, beat the hell out of him and intended to leave him there.  He, though, was a bit more than they could handle and as he proceeded to assault them they jumped in the paddy wagon and took off but not before he ripped the license place off the vehicle.   The Mexican proceeded to hitchhike back to Bellingham and, at the first opportunity, assaulted the first police officer he could find.  Now he is back in jail and the Assistant Chief has to explain to the Sheriff’s Department how come the license place is missing.”

“Ah, yes, quite a story,” I said as the young Bellingham police officer left my room.  As soon as he was gone I locked the door and called the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C.  When the receptionist answered my call I asked who was the highest-ranking official in the building today.  I was told it was Mr. xxx-xxx.  I asked to be connected to his secretary.  When she answered I responded, “This is the honorable Dr. George Drake, member of the Bellingham City Council, and I am very angry and need to talk to Mr. xxx-xxx immediately!”  “One moment Dr. Drake.”  When he answered I told him what had happened and that I wanted the FBI to bust open our police department immediately.  He assured me they would get right on it.

Two days later an F.B.I. agent was in my office at WWU getting the information needed to begin an investigation.  All hell broke loose when he went to the office of John Burley, Chief of Police.  Burley had no idea how to deal with the matter.  The final decision was to call a special meeting of the City of Bellingham Civil Service Commission and grant Suthas and the Sergeant a full disability discharge from the police force.  So, instead of going to jail for breaking the law the two of them were awarded full salary for the rest of their lives without having to work for it. 

Shortly thereafter there was an election for Mayor as the current Mayor was not running again and who shows up as a candidate?  Chief Burley!  I was appalled!  When a public debate between the two candidates was announced I called the local T.V. station and said: “When I stand up to question Burley put on the Kleig lights as I will have something newsworthy to say.”

Several nights later at the candidate debate, I stood up to ask Chief Burley a question and the Kleig lights went on.  I was going to ask about the Suthas incident but first I began by pointing out that the State Human Rights Task Force had found the Bellingham Police Department guilty of grossly inappropriate behavior against its only female police officer and the city had to pay her over $400,000 damages.  Chief Burley said “No, the case was dismissed!” and I responded, “There were two cases and in one the city had to pay damages of over $400,000.” 

Before I could get to the Suthas case the chairman banged the gavel and called “Mr. Drake, what is your question of Chief Burley?”  I quickly responded “Chief Burley, during your tenure as Chief of Police the department was overrun with slease.  If you are to be elected mayor what is to prevent that slease from permeating all of city hall?”  Burley was shocked into silence.  For moments he chewed air unable to respond but finally was able to mutter something like “that’s not so.”  I sat down and the lights went off but that remark was on the TV the next morning and I got torched for it from Burley’s friends but accolades from those supporting the other candidate.  Burley lost the election.  I feel my comments might have helped shape the results.

Actually I had more information than I needed to take on Burley.  First of all, I had a good friend who was one of the senior officers in the Police Department and he was keeping me informed of the progress of the FBI investigation and Chief Burley’s totally inadequate handling of the affair.  In addition, I had the taped interviews collected by investigators for the State Human Rights Commission.  Slease, without a doubt.  Incompetence, without a doubt.

The newly elected mayor brought in a new Chief of Police, a former Catholic Priest, a part-time college instructor, a trainer for the FBI Academy and one hell of a competent administrator.  At the first executive session of the City Council to discuss the proposal of the Police union for a pay increase, I told the other members of the City Council and the new Police Chief that I was the person who called in the FBI.  I then stated that I would support the current pay increase but if I ever even heard of a rumor of any police officer engaging in any sort of racist activity against any members of our population not a single member of the force will get a pay raise as long as I was on the City Council.  I made it clear that the force will have to monitor themselves or all will pay the price.  Chief Terry Mangin said he will pass that comment on to the members of the department but he also stated that he had already begun sensitivity training for all officers and assured us that anything of a racist nature such the recent event would never happen again.

So, what did I learn from this escapade?

I realized that a single individual can make a difference.  I did not know whether there would be any retaliation from the guilty individuals or other members of the police force if they knew my name so I told no one except those in that executive session meeting of the City Council that I was the one to call in the FBI.  Non-the-less I felt I had a responsibility as a local citizen with this specific bit of information to report it to higher authorities.