A run-of-the-mill methamphetamine case mutated into a review of pervasive misconduct among officers of Wichita's anti-drug, anti-gang Special Community Action Team (SCAT), and the presiding judge was not impressed with what she found. After SCAT members arrested Terry Marck in 1999 for meth manufacture, Marck's lawyer, Kurt Kerns, argued that the SCAT members had unlawfully searched Marck's home. Kern produced an internal Wichita legal staff memo concluding that some SCAT members had a pattern of unlawful searches, arrests, intimidation and other abusive practices.
District Judge Rebecca Pilshaw allowed a hearing to determine whether SCAT had engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional conduct, and after the hearing issued a scorching condemnation of police practices -- though still lauding the officers involved, crediting them with "getting the baddest of the bad guys off the street."
Pilshaw threw out the evidence against Marck on August 16, ruling that SCAT had conducted an illegal search of his residence. She then turned to the broader question of SCAT misconduct, a scandal that has been sputtering since the spring, when three SCAT officers were suspended after initial allegations of misconduct were made against them. An internal police review cleared them of all but minor violations, and they returned to duty, but the city memo obtained by Kerns found that former SCAT supervisor Lt. Tom Spencer had concluded that serious violations of constitutional rights had occurred in at least ten cases handled by the officers.
Pilshaw ripped into the police department's internal investigation, saying it "lacked credibility" because, among other things, investigators did not bother to actually interview the people who claimed their rights had been violated. She also criticized police union president Chester Pinkston for "outrageous and inappropriate comments" for saying that the internal investigation had cleared the officers of all but minor policy violations.
Pilshaw examined 12 cases involving the three SCAT officers over the past two years and found constitutional violations or other misbehavior in half of them. But weirdly, Pilshaw also praised the officers she was excoriating. Officer Kevin Gobel routinely used intimidation and ignored people who did not give consent to searches, said Pilshaw, but he still had "a fine police instinct." She criticized Sgt. John Bannister for unlawful searches, but then called him "a rising star" whom she considered a top candidate for lieutenant. She faulted Officer John Thode for illegal searches, including the search of Marck's residence, but then noted that he had once been shot by a burglary suspect. Although the hearings revealed a pattern of misconduct in the Wichita SCAT team, Pilshaw could not help but feel like she was on the same team as the police. "Mr. Marck is the bad guy here," she said, after reviewing the evidence of criminal policing.