What is going on in the Bay Area’s police departments? An investigation into the Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team has resulted in the arrests of a sheriff’s deputy and two investigators.
The two investigators, Christopher Butler and Norman Wielsch, have been charged with 28 felony counts connected to the theft, possession and sale of drugs including methamphetamine and steroids.
This was no small operation, and it keeps getting bigger. There are suspicions that the accused were involved in other crimes as well, including conspiracy, false arrests and gun offenses.
The worst part is that they may not be the only ones. Authorities are now looking at officers in as many as four Bay Area departments to see how they were tangled up with Butler. Expect the dismissal of many cases in Contra Costa County in the near future.
In San Francisco, district attorney George GascÃ³n has already dropped dozens of cases that were handled by seven police officers and a sergeant who are under federal and local investigation. The officers have been accused of conducting illegal searches and seizures at a residential hotel. The videotaped evidence in that case, too, suggests an endemic problem. Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who released the videotapes, has asked GascÃ³n for the accused officers’ arrest reports going back seven years.
Police departments have always had their bad actors and their scandals. The Bay Area has not been an exception to this rule (see: Fajitagate). But the recent preponderance of news suggests that it’s time for local governments and law enforcement to take another close look at how police departments are performing their duties. We entrust the police force with enormous power, and all of us suffer when they abuse it.
“You can’t have a criminal justice system predicated on lies and untruths coming from law enforcement,” Adachi said. “When you have a constitutional society, as we do, then the police have to play by the rules. And when they don’t, you can’t trust anything that comes out of that system.”
Clearly, all Bay Area governments need to scrutinize their police oversight capabilities and strengthen them. There’s absolutely no reason for either of these cases to have gone on as long as they allegedly did. That suggests that either the conspiracies are much bigger than we know, or that no one was paying attention.
Apart from more oversight, there need to be clear and strict consequences for police officers who engage in this kind of misconduct. The police need to understand that with enormous power comes enormous responsibility, and that they can’t be allowed to get away with breaking the rules they are meant to enforce. Forget job losses for lying to the public or engaging in criminal conspiracy – police officers who have engaged in this kind of conduct deserve jail time, the same as any other lawbreaker would earn.