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Phoenix police officers under fire for year-end video

1:00 PM, Dec 26, 2012   |    comments
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Phoenix (AZ Central) -- The year-end video starts out innocently enough, with photos of a squad of Phoenix police detectives enjoying themselves on the job and at holiday parties past.

But about 10 minutes in, the images take a turn toward the macabre, with celebratory photos quickly replaced by images of dead and decomposing bodies the officers encountered through their work.

One slide in the presentation offers a warning before the grisly crime-scene photos appear: "If disgusting is not your thing NOW is the time to avoid the TV!"

Those images, first discovered following an anonymous memo to a police lieutenant nearly a year ago, led a Phoenix review board to recommend that police fire the investigator responsible for putting the video together, along with an array of suspensions for other detectives who contributed photos to the presentation.

The firing and recommended suspensions, which range from eight hours to six weeks of unpaid leave, will be appealed once the five officers involved are officially served with notice of their punishments, according to the union representing Phoenix officers.

The case is also the subject of a $2.9 million notice of claim that four officers filed against the city and police officials in August alleging defamation and infliction of emotional distress.

The appeals are not focused on whether the involved officers deserve to be punished for their roles in making the video, said Phoenix police Officer Ken Crane, a vice president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, a labor group that represents some Phoenix officers. Instead, Crane said, the union is concerned with the disparate punishment handed down, which left the investigator who put together the video, Detective Courtney Mayo, without a job while the supervisor who contributed photos to the presentation received a suspension.

"We are appealing the discipline, not to say we don't think there should be any discipline, but certainly with regard to the one officer who was terminated was very disparate compared with the supervisor," he said.

Phoenix police released records of their internal probe of the incident, including the video, still images of the offensive photos and detailed investigative files, on Wednesday afternoon -- more than a year after the party took place and word of the crime-scene video spread through the department.

The officers who filed a notice of claim against the city effectively waived confidentiality rights they are afforded under state law and are therefore identified throughout the report. Mayo's supervisor did not join in the potential lawsuit with the others, and her name remains redacted.

The records indicate that Mayo's supervisor in the violent-crimes unit provided Mayo with 19 of the 30 photos included in the presentation. The supervisor told investigators that she kept the photos for her own comparison with medical examiners' reports and for use in a death-investigation course she teaches. The supervisor was not at the holiday party when the video was shown, and she told Phoenix investigators that she was shocked by what the video contained.

"My intention, obviously, was not this kind of video or how crude it was," the supervisor told police investigators. "That was not my intention ... And, in hindsight, I probably should have never given these photos to Courtney. And I, that, I'm gonna fall on the sword for that. I should've never done that. I still didn't know it was going to be that bad. I mean, it was terrible."

Members of the Phoenix police Professional Standards Bureau who conducted the internal investigation into the video shared their information with criminal investigators, who concluded no laws were broken.

The anonymous tipster who brought the video to the attention of police administrators said otherwise.

"This behavior is not only immoral and unethical but criminal," the tipster wrote days after the party. "A person tasked with investigating another human being's death should be compassionate and understanding. An officer with a personality and lust for such disgusting behavior has no business conducting death investigations."

The officers involved, and others who once supervised the unit of overnight detectives in the violent-crimes bureau, were suspended early this year, and, according to the documents released Wednesday, investigators quickly determined who had a hand in the video.

During interviews with investigators, the officers explained that some of the photos were taken at crime scenes with their personal cellphones for their records, some of the images were taken from the Internet and others were of the officers receiving "buried body" training.

Mayo told investigators the video's purpose was to highlight the squad's work in the past year, with visual reminders to jog the memories of investigators. None of the photos was of an ongoing investigation, she said.

"It wasn't even like we were laughing at it," she said. "It wasn't even, like, funny, like 'Oh, that's a funny one.' It's not so funny, but it's just part of our daily work. That's what it's about. It's not about, you know, disrespecting anybody or embarrassing a family member. I wasn't trying to be mean to anybody. Maybe, maybe I'm desensitized beyond whatever. I don't know."

Mayo was among the detectives who filed the notice of claim against Phoenix, alleging that police were involved in an "overzealous and ill-informed attack on the officers."

That pending legal action left Phoenix police with little to say after the documents were released.

"The unprofessional conduct of those involved in creating this video has been dealt with appropriately by the department," said Sgt. Trent Crump, a department spokesman. "One employee was terminated for her part in producing the video, and four others received suspensions. The Phoenix Police Department is committed to ensuring the highest levels of public trust."

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