Report: Some Dallas officers had habitual offenders sign blank citations

By Tanya Eiserer
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS Dallas police investigators have concluded that two officers made homeless people, prostitutes and other habitual violators sign blank citations so that the officers could fill out the tickets later with whatever offenses they chose.

One of the two officers, Senior Cpl. Timothy Stecker, had earlier been cleared of any serious wrongdoing related to his ticket-writing practices. The other, Senior Cpl. Jeffrey Nelson, is already on restricted duty as he awaits possible disciplinary action for engaging in a pattern of misconduct related to ticket writing.

Several people have told investigators that Cpls. Stecker and Nelson made them sign blank citations while working overnight patrol shifts in Old East Dallas.

"They had me signing blank tickets every time they seen me," R.B. Barton, who was homeless until recently, said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. "They said it was 'speed writing.' That's just where you sign the ticket and they'll fill it out later."

Another Dallas police officer backed up Mr. Barton's story, telling investigators that he was a witness when Cpl. Stecker made Mr. Barton sign a blank citation this year. He said Cpl. Nelson also watched that incident.

Cpl. Stecker admitted to investigators that he occasionally had Mr. Barton sign blank citations but said he did so as a "courtesy" because Mr. Barton often did not want to wait around for his copies.

Cpl. Nelson said he could not recall the incident with Mr. Barton, but he told investigators that allowing someone to sign a blank or partially filled out citation was a "courtesy" that he extended to a "small group of individuals."

Their attorney, Haakon Donnelly, described them as good officers who have been treated unfairly by the department.

"The way this investigation has been conducted, the length of time that it has taken the department, and just the way that this investigation was initiated and continues to be modified continually by the department has been very unfair to the officers," he said.

Police officials decided to re-examine the allegations involving Cpl. Stecker after The News located Mr. Barton. After The News asked the department to comment on his allegations of blank-ticket writing, police also located and interviewed Mr. Barton.

Terri Moore, first assistant Dallas County district attorney, said she couldn't comment on potential criminal charges.

"These are very serious allegations, and therefore we will take a very serious look into the facts of it," she said.

But a well-known civilian oversight expert said such conduct would appear to violate a person's constitutional right to know the nature of the charge against them.

"That's like signing a blank check," said Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Other officers complain

Police officials began investigating Cpls. Nelson, Stecker and Senior Cpl. Al Schoelen this year about the same time that The News reported that a Dallas police officer publicly claimed the officers had lied in police reports and made false arrests.

The department found that other officers didn't see probable cause for some of the citations and arrests they made. The internal affairs division reviewed thousands of tickets issued by the officers and concluded that Cpls. Nelson and Schoelen had put "inaccurate, false or improper information" on tickets and engaged in an unacceptable pattern of enforcement activity when citing people.

Those actions included arresting people on one or more charges and then citing them on additional charges with tickets that are mailed, and issuing citations to people under more than one name at the same time. Investigators also concluded that Cpl. Nelson used inappropriate force in an incident involving a handcuffed woman.

In August, Cpl. Stecker was cleared of any serious misconduct.

Lack of proof

Allegations of blank-ticket writing had come up early on in the investigation, but investigators said they were stymied by a lack of solid information.

In April, rookie Officer Aaron Gajkowski told investigators that he and Cpl. Nelson watched in the parking lot of a convenience store as Cpl. Stecker pulled out his ticket book and told a man "to sign a blank citation."

After the man dutifully signed, "Senior Cpl. Stecker said, 'You don't need your copies, do you?' " The man said no, according to Officer Gajkowski. Later, Officer Gajkowski said that Cpl. Stecker told him, "He and I have an understanding."

But Officer Gajkowski did not remember where the incident happened and did not know the man's name.

Investigators did not question Cpl. Stecker about the incident, said Deputy Chief Calvin Cunigan, commander of the internal affairs division. "I wish the question had been asked," he said.

Officer Gajkowski ran into the man who was ticketed again around September and learned that he was Mr. Barton. After The News learned Mr. Barton's identity, investigators again questioned Officer Gajkowski.

In his interview with The News, Mr. Barton said Cpls. Nelson and Stecker repeatedly asked him to sign blank citations.

Mr. Barton has a lengthy criminal history and previous dealings with Cpls. Nelson, Stecker and Schoelen.

In 2004, Cpl. Nelson caught Mr. Barton with a small amount of crack cocaine in a crack pipe. In 2005, Cpls. Nelson and Schoelen arrested him on an accusation that he stole an aluminum ladder and for being drunk in public. Cpl. Nelson also arrested Mr. Barton on five occasions and accused him of obstructing a road, a Class B misdemeanor.

Fear of retaliation

Mr. Barton said it was common knowledge among the transient population in the area that Cpls. Stecker and Nelson were making people sign blank citations. Mr. Barton said he signed the blank citations because he believed that the officers would retaliate if he refused.

"When Nelson first started messing me around, I talked bad to him," said Mr. Barton, who lived on the streets in the area for more than five years. "But I learned at the time not to say nothing if you don't want to go to jail."

Investigators have interviewed at least three other people who say they were made to sign blank tickets.

Christy Kunisch, who has multiple aliases and a criminal history including convictions for theft and a drug offense, told investigators that she recalled a recent encounter with Cpls. Stecker and Nelson in which she was so happy not to be taken to jail that she signed a blank citation.

Cpl. Stecker denied having her sign blank citations. Cpl. Nelson said he believes that on one occasion that he might have allowed her to sign a blank citation because she wanted to just sign the citation and leave.

"Because of her constantly using alias names to hide warrants, I normally would not have extended her this courtesy, but I may have on this occasion," Cpl. Nelson told investigators.

Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle said officers should not ask or expect anyone to sign a blank citation.

"It's hard for me to understand any circumstances where that would be appropriate," Chief Kunkle said. "It certainly violates fundamental fairness if people don't have the opportunity to know what they're being charged with or get proper notification."

Chief Kunkle said investigators believe that blank-ticket writing and the other unusual enforcement practices were aimed at the "habitual offenders" so that they always had unpaid tickets, which would lead to arrest warrants being issued for them.

The officers could then take the person into custody at any time. "It gives them a legal reason to arrest or to conduct searches," he said.

Cpl. Stecker was placed back on restricted duty Friday. He, Cpls. Nelson and Schoelen are likely to face disciplinary action ranging from counseling to being fired. A hearing on their cases is scheduled for Tuesday.

Mr. Barton, who has found a place to live since his run-ins with the three officers, said he quit using crack cocaine several months ago and is now working, including doing odd jobs around an area liquor store.

"Them guys are so wrong," Mr. Barton said. "I don't know what their problem is."

Copyright 2007 The Dallas Morning News

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