Officials deny Oregon Police Officer Jeff Brown, son of Mayor Marge Brown, received lenient treatment for his repeated and illegal use of the Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS) to gain information about an ex-girlfriend over a two-year period.
Many posters on The Press’s message board, “Shout,” believe Brown, who was given a 20-day suspension for the LEADS violations, should have been dismissed for the offense, which the Ohio Revised Code calls a fifth degree felony.
LEADS gives police access to national criminal justice databases and provides personal details about individuals, including their addresses, phone numbers, and other private information.
Brown, who is married, used LEADS as recently as May 26, 2009, to look up information on former girlfriend Tanya Hernandez, according to an internal affairs report released Sept. 4 that investigated the officer over a seven year period.
“We’ve had suspensions for LEADS violations in the past, some of them much, much shorter than what Jeff Brown got,” said Administrator Ken Filipiak, who is also the city’s safety director. “If you’re taking information from LEADS, and using it for a criminal purpose, that’s different from accessing LEADS to find out your own personal information or information on family members. The point is, you have to examine the intent as well. I know that Chief [Rick] Stager spent some time talking to other police departments to find out how they would evaluate these charges.”
Discipline was also based on Brown’s entire employment record, he said.
“Other than a verbal warning for misuse of sick leave, Jeff really doesn’t have any discipline in his record, going back better than 10 years. I think the chief did what he thought was fair, sustainable, and consistent with what our department policy has been in the past,” said Filipiak.
The Ohio Revised Code states that “No person shall knowingly gain access to, attempt to gain access to, cause access to be granted to, or disseminate information gained from access to the law enforcement automated database system…without the consent of, or beyond the scope of the express or implied consent of, the chair of the law enforcement automated data system steering committee.”
Unauthorized use of the LEADS, states the ORC, “is a felony of the fifth degree.”
The Press contacted other police departments in northwest Ohio to find out their disciplinary policy of employee violations of LEADS.
Capt. Trent Schroeder, of Northwood, called it a serious offense when an employee uses LEADS for personal purposes.
“We have to follow LEADS administrative rules. They are pretty strict when it comes to that,” said Schroeder. “It’s a very serious offense for an employee to access, release or use for personal purposes any sensitive, confidential, or classified information, obtained in the course of employment.”
The rules do not list how many times LEADS is used before it is considered a serious offense, said Schroeder.
“It states it’s not to be done. Ever,” he said.
“If we determine an employee used it personally or gave the information to a third party, it’s a violation of our policy and we would conduct an internal affairs investigation,” said Schroeder.
Discipline, he said, could range from suspension to termination based on the frequency of the violation.
Schroeder was involved in an investigation of a Northwood police dispatcher in 2005 who violated LEADS policy just once, which led to her resignation.
“A business owner called, and wanted to know if a vehicle in their parking lot was stolen. She thought she was doing the owner a favor by running information on the vehicle. We charged her with a fifth degree felony for unauthorized use of property. There was a pre-trial conference. We met with the Wood County prosecutor’s office. An immediate letter of resignation was submitted to avoid criminal prosecution.”
Robert Boehme, deputy police chief of Sylvania Township, said the law is clear about the use of LEADS.
“You cannot use LEADS or the Northwest Ohio Regional Information System (NORIS) for your own personal use. It is supposed to be used for law enforcement purposes only. For instance, if someone from our road department wants information on a car that is blocking the road, we can’t give them that information,” said Boehme.
Discipline is determined by the chief, he added.
“The department would confer with the prosecutor and also complete an administrative investigation. We are not going to put the department at risk for not conferring with the prosecutor. We won’t cover for anyone,” he said.
Sylvania Police Chief Gerald A. Sobb also said policy is set by LEADS rules.
“You cannot use LEADS or NORIS unless it is for official law enforcement business. It is hard to say what the discipline would be. We have not had this problem. It would be specific to the incident. I would have to do an investigation to see what would be appropriate.”
Lt. Dan Gerken, of Toledo’s Internal Affairs unit, agrees.
An investigation would be conducted, with discipline decided by the chief, he said.
Lake Township Police Chief Mark Hummer said no officer can use LEADS for personal reasons, nor will information received from the computer be given out to anyone unless the information is pertinent to a criminal offense.
“Any officer of the department who is found guilty of a violation of any rules or regulations, written policies or procedures of this department will be subject to reprimand, suspension or dismissal from the department,” said Hummer.
Each time police log onto Mobile Data Terminals, through which LEADS and NORIS are accessed, they have to confirm via the computer they are aware that personal or non-official use of LEADS and NORIS is a felony of the fifth degree, added Hummer.
From November 17, 2006 to May 30, 2009, a LEADS audit conducted by Lt. Hank Everitt showed Brown made 16 inquiries on Hernandez.
He used it most recently in the early morning hours of May 26, 2009. This was followed by her being run six hours later the same morning by Officer Bruce Huer, who stopped Hernandez for a traffic violation related to being under suspension and towed her vehicle shortly after that time.
Huer told investigators Brown told him he had run plates in the lot where her car was parked the previous evening and that the registrations check on her vehicle showed the registered owner of the vehicle was suspended. Huer did a record check to confirm she was under suspension. Huer was unaware Hernandez was a former girlfriend of Brown’s.
Stager said Brown’s 20-day suspension was appropriate for the LEADS violations on Hernandez.
“Part of the investigative report was sent to the security officer for LEADS-NORIS. He told me that the Lucas County Prosecutor’s office would not prosecute an officer for LEADS-NORIS violations,” said Stager.
A LEADS committee, which meets every three months, will also review the case, he added.
Dean Mandros, head of the criminal division of the Lucas County prosecutor’s office, said his department does look at LEADS violations.
“We would consider all the information, then make a decision,” said Mandros.
He was not contacted by Oregon officials regarding the Brown case, he said.
Assistant Chief Paul Magdich, who led the investigation of Brown, had recommended a 10-day suspension of Brown for the LEADS violations, said Stager, who then doubled it.
“This was a very serious violation and the discipline is serious, too. If it happens again…it is more than likely that he will be terminated,” said Stager.
Brown’s 20-day suspension will be split into two, 10-day increments, said Stager.
“I am not a believer in splitting the time. It was brought to my attention that it would be a burden, a punishment on the family, if he were to go 20 days in a row without pay,” said Stager.
In addition to the 20-day suspension, Brown received a verbal reprimand for interfering in the private business or affairs of another woman, Vicky Ferris, a teacher at St. Patrick of Heatherdowns Elementary School, according to the internal affairs report. Ferris contacted police to complain that Brown had allegedly portrayed her as a convicted felon.
On May 28, 2009, Ferris called police to report she had been called into the principal’s office and questioned about the allegation, which threatened her employment as a teacher.
Ferris, who is Hernandez’s sister-in-law, believes she was targeted because she had told Hernandez that Brown “was taking advantage of her and would not be leaving his wife,” states the internal affairs report.
Ferris and Hernandez filed complaints with Oregon police alleging Brown was harassing and stalking them.
Lt. Everitt’s LEADS audit showed Brown made no inquiries of Ferris.
Allegations that Brown had sex while on duty with Nichole Rhoades in 2002 were dismissed because former Chief Tom Gulch’s investigation of the complaint could not be found, according to the report.
Stager contends that Brown could have been terminated for other allegations in the report, but was not because Gulch was aware of the allegations “and did nothing.”
“Brown could have been terminated if I did not know that Gulch knew about certain things. It could have been a more severe thing, more than a suspension,” said Stager.
Mayor Brown fired Gulch in 2005.
Gulch, as part of an agreement with the city when he left, cannot comment, according to an associate who wishes to remain anonymous.