WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous says what started as a response to a citizen complaint turned into an embarrassment and a mess.
Evangelous says mistakes and failures in judgement by officers during a prostitution sting last year has led to changes for his department. He says the changes were coming, but they happened officially today nearly a year after the incident he says officers tried to cover up for months.
"The code of silence in law enforcement is a misguided theory of how to protect the organization," Evangelous said during an afternoon news conference at WPD headquarters. "We are dealing with this is in this case."
Evangelous says the code of silence lasted until December when an officer with direct knowledge of what really happened during a prostitution sting last March finally came forward. It led to an internal affairs review. The department demoted two officers and suspended another in the past month as a result, the chief said. "They embarrassed us," Evangelous said he told the officers involved. "They embarrassed the organization. They embarrassed themselves." Evangelous would not name the officers, but WPD records show the department demoted Sgt. J.P. Fitzgerald to corporal last month and transferred him from Special Operations to Patrol. He is resigning effective Friday. The department suspended Sgt. William Richards for a week last month and transferred him as well. And just last week Cpl. Andy Lazzaro was demoted to officer.
A WPD spokeswoman says until today, narcotics was part of the Special Operations Division and that all three officers were part of narcotics in March 2012. Evangelous would not give many specifics about the investigation citing personnel laws. But he did admit one officer consumed too much alcohol during the undercover sting that involved advertised escorts coming to an RV.
Police cited three women in the operation, but later voided two of the tickets. The chief would not say why. He did say a video recorder used in the operation was reported lost months later and has never been found.
In all Evangelous said there were failures in procedure and a total failure in supervision, but nothing that happened was criminal. Still, he admits what happened will take a toll on the community's faith in his department. "If I have to supervise the damn thing myself, then I will, but I'm here to tell you that it's not gonna happen again," Evangelous said. "If I can't count on my staff to take care of business for me, then I'll go out and do it myself."
Evangelous said plans to move the narcotics unit to the criminal investigation division went into effect today ahead of schedule. The chief described the supervision of the operation in question as "incompetent," but he would not say who supervised the sting. We asked the chief if he will ask City Council to use a state law allowing him to release normally protected personnel information to maintain the integrity of the department. He said he'd have to talk with the city attorney first.