It's long past time for police forces to disassociate with sports teams

Police forces continue to have a too-close relationship with sports teams that compromises their duty to the people, writes Julie DiCaro.
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In August 2014, a woman called 911 at 2:41 am to report that a man was trying to “pull” her out of a house. When the police responded to the home of the 6'4", 300-pound Ray McDonald, they found his pregnant fiancée shaken and visibly injured.

They also found something else: A uniformed, on-duty San Jose police officer who had arrived earlier at McDonald’s request.

While McDonald’s fiancée was placing the emergency call, McDonald was placing one to Sgt. Sean Pritchard, who worked private security for the San Francisco 49ers, and who had attended McDonald’s 30th birthday party earlier that evening while off duty. At the time, Pritchard was one of 16 San Jose police officers moonlighting as security with the 49ers, a practice the department eventually suspended — in large part because of Pritchard’s role in the investigation at McDonald’s home that evening.

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What took place between McDonald, his fiancée and Pritchard between the time he arrived and when the police were dispatched to the home is anyone’s guess. By the time the case landed with the district attorney’s office, the victim had ceased cooperating with law enforcement — an all-too-common occurrence in domestic violence cases.

But according to the San Jose Mercury News, Pritchard’s presence at McDonald’s home that night sparked an internal affairs inquiry, complicated the on-scene investigation and delayed the case being forwarded to the DA for possible prosecution. Charges were not filed against McDonald stemming from that night, but he currently faces charges of sexual assault, domestic battery, child endangerment, and violation of an order of protection, stemming from separate incidents.

Unfortunately for domestic violence victims and the community at large, the 49ers aren’t the only pro team accused of having a too-cozy relationship with local law enforcement. Last October, the New York Times published an expose detailing that Florida State University has worked hand-in-hand with the Tallahassee Police to downplay, downgrade and overlook criminal behavior by the school’s athletes. Infamously, the Tallahassee police prioritized working with the university and quarterback Jameis Winston’s attorney over prosecution of rape allegations against Winston.

According to FOX Sports:

The university’s police chief obtained original police reports as well as supplemental reports from Tallahassee police on Nov. 8, 2013, at least four days before the case was turned over to Meggs, the local prosecutor responsible for investigating serious crimes and filing criminal charges.

The university’s police chief forwarded the reports to a high-ranking administrator in the Florida State athletic department, and within days they ultimately wound up in the hands of Winston’s defense attorney — also before Meggs was notified of the case and launched his own investigation.

The list of police officers blurring the line between “on-duty cop” and “off-duty private security” goes on and on. A Pennsylvania state trooper was investigated for his role in the alleged sexual assault of a 20-year-old woman by NFL quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2010. The trooper, Ed Joyner, was accused by witnesses of refusing to come to the aid of the women who eventually accused Roethlisberger of assaulting her: An ongoing internal investigation will determine whether Joyner did anything “that could reasonably be expected to destroy public respect for the Pennsylvania State Police or confidence in the state police,” said Lt. Myra Taylor, a state police spokeswoman.

A friend of the accuser said in a statement to police that a “bodyguard” refused to acknowledge that the woman, who had been drinking, was alone with Roethlisberger in the back of a nightclub in Milledgeville, Ga. Ann Marie Lubatti told police on March 5 that she told the bodyguard, “This isn’t right. My friend is back there with Ben. She needs to come back right now.”

Lubatti said the bodyguard wouldn’t look her in the eye and said he didn’t know what she was talking about.

Another man — Coraopolis, Pa., police officer Anthony Barravecchio — was alleged by the accuser as the man who led her into a hallway where Roethlisberger allegedly assaulted her.

Miami defensive end Phillip Merling enjoyed the benefit of the special relationship between the Dolphins and Broward County Police when he was arrested for domestic violence in 2010. That case, like the others, spawned an internal affairs investigation into how Merling’s arrest was handled.

Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane was accompanied by an off-duty Buffalo police officer on the night he is accused of raping a woman at his suburban Buffalo home. In a stunning show of conflict of interest, the officer, Lt. Thomas English, even publicly disputed some of the leaked statements made by the alleged victim, despite an ongoing investigation into the allegations by a neighboring police department.

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These are only some of the cases in which the involvement of off-duty police officers have been called into question in criminal investigations involving pro athletes, but rumors of many more continue to swirl. Some law enforcement agencies, like the San Jose Police Department, have been embarrassed into banning their officers from working for pro sports franchises. But many more police departments enjoy too-friendly relationships with local sports teams that, in the best cases, afford the teams and their employees special privileges not enjoyed by the rest of populace when charged with a crime. At worst, these relationships hamper investigations and work against victims seeking justice.

Last week, the Chicago Bears released defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliffe after he became violent towards coaches and staff for the second time in as many seasons. The Lake Forest, Ill., police were tight-lipped about the incident, reportedly at the request of the Bears, a perk not often afforded to others in the community. There is no mention of the incident at Halas Hall, the Bears practice facility, on the Lake Forest Police blotter, despite many reports of non-violent crimes in the area.

Legislation and policy banning pro sports teams from employing local law enforcement as private security is long past due. At the very least, professional sports leagues and local government should insist that police officers don’t have to choose between their paycheck from a sports franchise and their paycheck from the people when investigating a crime. As for the police departments that work closely with pro and college teams to protect athletes just because, we can only hope for a crisis of conscience.