Why Good Cops Go Bad

By most accounts, Fonda Cecilia Moore was a model cop. Gung-ho, popular with her colleagues on the District of Columbia's tough Anacostia beat, she enjoyed the grit and grime of police work -- night patrols in some of Washington's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, undercover investigations against drug dealers and prostitutes, the adrenalin rush of chasing and catching bad guys. ""Fonda loved police work,'' a friend says. ""It was her pride and joy.'' But prosecutors charge that Moore, the mother of two young boys, moonlighted as a confederate of one of Washington's biggest cocaine dealers. Acquitted of murder and other charges in her first trial, she is awaiting trial on charges of conspiring to commit murder and distribute crack.

The charges against her highlight one of the deepest dilemmas facing the U.S. criminal-justice system -- the rise of aggressive criminality among cops. There is nothing new about police corruption, and it is probably true that precinct-level graft from bookies, pimps and other underworld types is less prevalent today than it was 50 or 100 years ago. But the crack trade and its gusher of illicit cash are testing the integrity of American law enforcement as never before. Recent scandals in cities like New York and Los Angeles suggest the emergence of a new breed of renegade cops who have gone well beyond taking bribes. Though few in number, these cops actively collaborate -- and sometimes compete -- with the drug dealers they are supposed to be pursuing. They are criminals behind the badge.

That is the meaning of what is known in New York City as the ""Dirty 30'' scandal -- an internal-affairs sweep that has now led to the arrest of 29 cops in Harlem's 30th Precinct on charges ranging from drug conspiracy to perjury. It is the theme of an unpublished book (""Code of Silence: The Explosive Inside Story of the Largest Police Corruption Scandal in History'') by Robert Sobel, a former narcotics detective who has testified in 11 separate trials against former colleagues in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Other cities have similar problems: the District of Columbia has its ""Dirty Dozen,'' Miami had ""the Miami River case.'' Last week federal authorities in New Orleans announced the arrest of nine officers in a drug-related sting operation. ""I would describe corruption in the New Orleans Police Department to be . . . rampant and systematic,'' U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan said.

If the prosecutors in Washington are right, Fonda Moore's case illustrates many of the temptations big-city cops now face. Moore was arrested at Washington's Seventh District precinct house shortly after she showed up for the late shift on June 26, 1992. Her arrest, as shocking to her as it was to her station-house buddies, was the unexpected byproduct of an investigation into the murder of a 19-year-old drug dealer a year and a half earlier. The victim, Billy Ray Tolbert, had been savagely beaten, shot numerous times and stuffed upside down in the seat of his brand-new Acura Legend. That suggested a turf war among crack dealers -- and investigators eventually found several druggies who knew all about it.

One informer said Tolbert had been killed in retaliation for the very similar murder of Jimmy Murray, a star salesman for a crack dealer named Javier Card. The informer also said that Murray had a girlfriend who was a District of Columbia police officer -- and that the girlfriend had taken up with Card himself after Murray's death. Card was arrested first, followed by other members of his gang. And at the end of an 18-month investigation, Fonda Moore was busted, too.

They videotaped Moore's statement, which was something less than a full confession. She did not admit taking part in Tolbert's murder and denied knowing that Card and his gang were moving drugs out of a Washington sandwich shop that was a focus of the investigation. But she admitted knowing that Card and Jimmy Murray were drug dealers and admitted driving some of Card's gang on a fruitless attempt to find and ""take care of'' one of Jimmy Murray's murderers. She admitted she used her access to police files to spy on the investigation to help Card. She also said Card himself told her he killed Billy Ray Tolbert -- and all that, investigators thought, would put her away.

It didn't, because the videotaped statement was ruled inadmissible. Javier Card and several members of his gang were convicted and went to prison. But the jurors, presented with an unsigned, heavily edited version of the transcript of Moore's statement, balked. They acquitted her of murder and several other charges and failed to agree whether she was guilty of conspiracy to murder. Prosecutor G. Paul Howes will try her again for conspiracy to commit murder early next year; the case against her for conspiracy to distribute cocaine will be tried separately. Moore was suspended without pay from the police department. Neither she nor her attorney will discuss the case, and there is no way to say how the trials will turn out.

Guilty or not, Moore's admitted involvement with Murray and Card poses disturbing questions for police departments everywhere. How could a good cop wind up consorting with men she knew to be big-time drug dealers? ""Sex and money,'' a source says. ""She wasn't as pure as freshly fallen snow -- or if she was, she drifted a great deal.'' Moore drove a Saab and former colleagues say she liked to play cards for high stakes. But her salary was only $31,500 a year, she had just been separated and the bills were mounting up. Sources quote Card saying ""that cop'' was always pushing him for money. Give her the benefit of the doubt -- she was struggling financially, and Murray was probably a charming devil.

But it gets worse. Police scandals in New York and other cities clearly show cops go wrong in groups -- so there is reason to worry about the ""corporate culture'' of typical big-city police departments. Cops have a nearly impossible job -- maintaining order in a disorderly society with a complex legal code. That sometimes means they must go beyond the law to do their jobs but risk harsh discipline when they do. Front-line cops suffer high levels of stress. If they make mistakes in the line of duty, the mistakes can have life-or-death consequences. All of this is why, in many departments, cops are clannish, secretive and likely to have an us-against-them mentality.

Now add huge temptation -- cocaine money. Throw the cops into daily combat with violent perps, and ask them to operate through a legal system that often seems to frustrate elementary justice. That, in a nutshell, is what the Mollen Commission was investigating in New York City. Harlem's Dirty 30 is only the latest precinct to be engulfed in scandal. In 1987, it was the 77th Precinct in Brooklyn; in 1992, it was the 73d, also in Brooklyn.

The 73d was where Officer Kevin Hembury worked. The precinct covers Brooklyn's Brownsville section, saturated with drug-related crime. Cops in the 73d fought unsuccessfully against the anarchy on the streets, and they played by their own rules: brutality was commonplace, illegal searches and seizures were routine and a ""good cop'' was one who didn't rat. Hembury, assigned to the 73d in 1987, fit in quickly. He went along on ""drug raids,'' which was cop slang for illegal searches mostly intended to show the crack dealers who was boss. The raids were timed to avoid supervision, and usually, no one was arrested: that would create a paper trail. Before long, Hembury and his partner were stealing money from suspects and crack dens.

It was small-time corruption, but it was systematic. By his own testimony, Hembury and his buddies staged about 100 ""drug raids'' over a two-year-period and the brass never caught on. Then Hembury got greedy -- and was nailed in an unrelated drug investigation on suburban Long Island. Hembury was part of a clique of young white officers who commuted to Brooklyn from Suffolk County. He and two of his fellow commuters got involved in a coke ring run by Michael Dowd, the 94th Precinct officer who became famous as ""New York's dirtiest cop.'' Suffolk County authorities arrested Dowd, Hembury and nearly 50 other suspects in May 1992. Hembury was fired from the force and served two and a half years in prison. He now regrets what he did. Being a cop ""is a good job,'' he says. ""You should do what you're paid for.''

Robert Sobel loved police work, too. Sobel, now 49, was a member of an elite narcotics unit in the L.A. Sheriff's Department from 1987 to 1989, when federal prosecutors nabbed him and some of his fellow detectives in a $30,000 sting. Since then, 27 former deputies have been convicted on various charges and dozens of others have been forced to retire. Sobel says his unit ""contained 124 people, and this case knocked down about 45. If there's two or three guys, that's corruption. But when a third of the unit goes down . . . we're talking about institutional corruption.''

If Sobel's account is accurate -- and there is no reason to think that it isn't -- he and his fellow narcs worked in a law-enforcement world gone mad. This takes a bit of background. Southern California is a major transshipment point for incoming Colombian cocaine and outgoing cocaine money. The FBI, the IRS and the U.S. Customs Service were attempting to track the Colombian cartel by running money-laundering operations that served the smugglers. Local cops routinely used secret information gleaned from these money-laundering operations to bust major dealers. Under federal asset-forfeiture laws, local departments get a share of all drug money seized in such investigations. Sobel says the L.A. Sheriff's Department got $60 million from asset forfeitures in 1988-89 -- a major source of revenue for the department and the reason command supervision was so lax.

He also says that he and his comrades skimmed huge amounts of cash for themselves from this avalanche of illicit money. ""If you look the other way, I can make you a rich man,'' a fellow deputy told Sobel when he joined the team. ""We're taking the whole effing bag . . . the entire [narcotics] bureau is rocking and rolling.'' Sobel says the narcs bought houses, cars and businesses with their shares of the skim: he himself got $140,000 over two years. ""We were basically doing street robberies,'' he says. ""It was informal taxation of the Colombian cartels . . . We lied in the reports [and] in court.''

It had to end, and it did. Sobel and his buddies were trapped in a sting set up by the Feds. Faced with years in prison, he became the government's star witness in a serial prosecution of corrupt deputies that will continue well into 1995. The Sheriff's Department is probably cleaner now, but Sobel says it is only a matter of time before the cycle of corruption begins all over again. He may be right. Cocaine is still plentiful in most major cities in America -- and the money is still there for the taking.

Why Good Cops Go Bad | News