Effects of Surveillance Go out of Control at Mall Food Court

Interim Police Chief Terry Hudson demoted a sergeant and suspended several officers without pay last week after investigating allegations they stole drinks from a closed store while searching for a gunman.

A security camera recorded at least six officers in a nocturnal visit to a Mrs. Fields Original Cookies shop at Hilltop Mall on July 15. The officers, part of a team searching for a man who shot at a mall security guard hours earlier, took drinks from a soda fountain behind the counter of the business, which is open to the mall.

The team's supervisor, who is the sergeant involved in the disciplinary action, considered leaving money on the cash register to pay for the goods but did not because he thought somebody might steal the cash before the store opened, department sources said. He also did not report the incident, sources said.

The Times is not naming the sources because they fear retribution.

That supervisor was demoted to the rank of officer and will be suspended for two months without pay. Other officers identified from a videotape supplied to the police department by the store owner were given two-week suspensions without pay, sources said.

"The case is over and appropriate discipline has been levied. I have forwarded the final discipline to HR to begin the process," Hudson said Thursday.

"I am certainly not satisfied that this incident occurred. It is embarrassing to the police department and to the city, and it has the potential to undermine the trust the public has in us but, as with anything in life, we must go on. Appropriate charges were levied," he added.

Hudson would not comment on any details of the case, including the number of officers involved, citing state prohibitions against publicly releasing police personnel information.

The Times is not naming the involved officers because it cannot confirm their identities.

The president of the Richmond Police Officers Association and the attorney representing the officers did not return phone calls Thursday.

News of the allegations attracted national media attention in August. The franchise owner has avoided the press but did release a written statement Thursday through corporate spokesman Michael Frandsen.

"The franchisee was aware of reported criminal activity in the area and became especially concerned when he arrived the next morning and saw that someone had been in his store the night before," Frandsen wrote. "There was no note or any other indication as to who it was, however.

"When he reviewed the surveillance tape and saw that it had been law enforcement, he passed his concerns on to the local police, but he didn't want to press any charges. He simply would have appreciated a note or something to let him know who had been in the store."

But as news of the discipline leaked out of the department this week, some community activists who follow department politics expressed disappointment that some involved officers did not lose their jobs.

"When you look at the situation taking place here, you have a sergeant who leads his other officers ... to do something that is illegal, under the color of authority," Corky Booze said. "I feel that Chief Hudson is faulty in not dealing with this situation in a swift and equable manner."

Booze, a frequent speaker at City Council, said he has spoken privately with several officers who complain that blacks are generally disciplined more harshly than officers of other ethnicities. The sergeant in this case in not black, the sources said.

The department has fired at least one black officer and forced two others to resign, one with a medical retirement, since 2002. The department forced at least one white officer under disciplinary scrutiny to take a medical retirement during the same period.

(c) 2005 Associated Press