Federal authorities have agreed to investigate the conduct of a former Akron police officer accused of withholding video evidence in an untold number of cases.
Former patrolman and gang unit officer Donald Schismenos will be the focus of the investigation.
Federal investigators generally look at civil rights violations that are racially charged. A majority of the secret videos released so far involve black suspects.
Further, in one video released to the Beacon Journal, Schismenos is heard using racial slurs during a recorded conversation with another officer as they drove together in 2010.
During the conversation, the officers are recalling how field investigation (FI) cards, which are written by police in lieu of full incident reports, are sometimes edited by department secretaries to eliminate inappropriate language written by officers.
“What kind of bad language are you guys putting in the FI?” Schismenos asks the officer.
“If you quote that they’re saying mother [expletive] or [N-word] or whatever the [expletive] case is, if it’s not in a quote [it can’t be used],” the unidentified officer said.
“Well, I can see that,” Schismenos says. “You don’t want an officer getting in trouble, but just put in it all in quotes: That stupid [N-word] did this. It’s your quote, but hey...”
Both officers then break out in laughter.
The officers are also heard apparently contacting a dispatcher and mocking a person of Middle Eastern descent.
“Hello? Hello? Metro 4 ... I got a crazy Iranian ...” Schismenos says.
It is unclear if they were referring to an actual case.
In the same conversation, they also appear to mock the speech pattern of a black female officer, who the unidentified officer said offered tips on passing a polygraph test.
“She’s so stupid,” Schismenos says.
Others aware of camera
Some of the hundreds of recordings date back to at least 1996. Others are from around 2010-11, when Schismenos was assigned to the department’s gang unit.
In documents released by the city, other gang unit members — and one sergeant — acknowledged in the summer of 2011 to knowing that Schismenos was recording his activities with a pen camera for more than a year.
It was not clear to the fellow officers whether Schismenos was tagging the videos into evidence, as required, the reports show.
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic said Friday that he is unaware of any misconduct by other officers.
“Did [Schismenos] have a responsibility to turn [evidence] over? It’s clear cut. It isn’t debatable,” Plusquellic said. “I’ve said it to you. I used the term: He’s a rogue cop operating under his own rules.”
Friday’s announcement of the federal probe comes less than a week after a Beacon Journal investigation uncovered examples where Schismenos made covert recordings at crime scenes, but failed to tag the images into evidence for use at trial by prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The newspaper’s revelations came more than a year after the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Akron police and Summit County prosecutors ended an 18-month probe into the officer’s actions.
The Beacon Journal has received more than 600 pages of documents and several videos sporadically since requesting the records from the city and state in January. More have been promised by government attorneys.
More thorough review
On Wednesday, Plusquellic asked the U.S. Attorneys office in Cleveland to take a deeper look at the officer’s conduct.
Steven Dettelbach, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, released a statement Friday announcing the new probe.
“The FBI was previously asked to review two tapes, which were determined to not constitute criminal violations. We understand that, as a result of the information that has come to light this week, the FBI has been asked to review additional information about which our state and local law enforcement partners have expressed some concern.
“Along with the FBI, we will review any information that is presented to us that could constitute evidence of a federal criminal violation.”
Mike Tobin, a spokesman for Dettelbach’s office, said the FBI will be assigned to investigate. He said the city has yet to define the scope of their request.
Police Chief James Nice, in response to a call for a federal probe by a group of local ministers, countered during a City Council meeting Monday night that the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice had already looked at the case in 2011.
However, the extent of that review by federal authorities was limited to just two videos: one involving Cash M. Moore of Akron and another involving Rashid Fitzgerald, both of whom were arrested by Schismenos in 2010.
Fitzgerald’s video, in which he is seen being tased and handcuffed while gagging on drugs, was never turned over to his defense attorneys before trial or after police and prosecutors viewed it in 2011.
Prosecutors did contact Moore’s attorney about the video, but the court-appointed lawyer apparently never told her client nor filed any motions. Authorities say the Moore video contradicts reports filed by Schismenos, which led to a criminal indictment.
In addition, prosecutors were unaware of a 1996 video that shows Edward Williams of Akron in a confrontation with Schismenos and another officer.
Williams is seen in the video being punched and struck repeatedly with a baton after questioning police during a traffic stop.
He was later indicted on charges of resisting arrest and assault on a police officer. The video, secretly recorded by Schismenos from a police cruiser, was never submitted into evidence nor was it shown to jurors who convicted Williams.
Nice later last week said that BCI, which ended its review in late 2012 or early 2013, flagged 15 videos in need of review. Those videos, however, were never shown to prosecutors, he said.
It is unclear if those 15 videos were part of a package of videos released to the Beacon Journal. A listing of the 1,900 videos found downloaded by Schismenos onto a city computer has yet to be provided.
Neither Schismenos nor his attorney, Tom Dicaudo, have commented.
Police discovered the videos, as well as 38,000 images, on the city computer in the summer of 2011.
Police later searched Schismenos’ home and found more videos as well as weapons, some of which were seized by the officer over the years.
They also recovered large numbers of police officer personnel records inside the house.
Schismenos, an officer since 1992, was immediately placed on paid leave. He remained on the payroll until resigning in December.