With guns drawn and flashlights cutting through darkened rooms, Polk County undercover drug investigators stormed the home of convicted drug dealer Michael Difalco near Lakeland in March.
As investigators searched the home for drugs, some drug task force members found other ways to occupy their time. Within 20 minutes of entering Difalco’s house, some of the investigators found a Wii video bowling game and began bowling frame after frame.
While some detectives hauled out evidence such as flat screen televisions and shotguns, others threw strikes, gutter balls and worked on picking up spares.
A Polk County sheriff’s detective cataloging evidence repeatedly put down her work and picked up a Wii remote to bowl. When she hit two strikes in a row, she raised her arms above her head, jumping and kicking.
While a female detective lifted a nearby couch looking for evidence, another sheriff’s detective focused on pin action.
But detectives with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the Auburndale, Lakeland and Winter Haven police departments did not know that a wireless security camera connected to a computer inside Difalco’s home was recording their activity.
The recording obtained by News Channel 8 showed several members of the county’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force entering the house shortly after 8 a.m. According to the search warrant, their mission was to search for drugs, stolen property and the fruits of any illegal drug activity.
Now there are questions on how the impromptu bowling tournament might affect the case against Difalco.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd denies it will have any effect.
“That absolutely is not true; that doesn’t invalidate the search at all,” Judd said. “Now the defendant would like for it to invalidate the search, but unfortunately for him, it won’t.”
Judd, who watched the video during an interview last week, called the situation an embarrassment.
“I’m not pleased that they played that Wii bowling game,” Judd said. The sheriff’s office oversees the drug task force. Judd said he initiated an internal administrative investigation of the incident.
“That is not appropriate conduct at a search warrant,” he said. “But I am less pleased with the supervision that didn’t walk in and say, turn that off. That’s what supervision should have done.”
Task force members played the video game at various times during the day, for a total of a little over an hour of playing time. The competition proved to be quite competitive at times. A task force supervisor from the Lakeland Police Department, gun at his side, pumped his fist after picking up a strike on the first ball he threw. The video showed he continued bowling frame after frame, competing with another undercover detective.
The only reason this has gotten any coverage is because of the game playing. That corruption is only the symptom of the larger problem of the war on drugs and the police state it’s helped facilitate. Get rid of the drug war and you get rid of a large portion of the corrupt cops.
When undercover detectives busted Jose and Maximo Colon last year for selling cocaine at a seedy club in Queens, there was a glaring problem: The brothers hadn’t done anything wrong.
But proclaiming innocence wasn’t going to be good enough. The Dominican immigrants needed proof.
“I sat in the jail and thought … how could I prove this? What could I do?” Jose, 24, recalled in Spanish during a recent interview.
As he glanced around a holding cell, the answer came to him: Security cameras. Since then, a vindicating video from the club’s cameras has spared the brothers a possible prison term, resulted in two officers’ arrest and become the basis for a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
The officers, who are due back in court June 26, have pleaded not guilty, and New York Police Department officials have downplayed their case.
But the drug corruption case isn’t alone.
On May 13, another NYPD officer was arrested for plotting to invade a Manhattan apartment where he hoped to steal $900,000 in drug money. In another pending case, prosecutors in Brooklyn say officers were caught in a 2007 sting using seized drugs to reward a snitch for information. And in the Bronx, prosecutors have charged a detective with lying about a drug bust captured on a surveillance tape that contradicts her story.
Elsewhere, Philadelphia prosecutors dismissed more than a dozen drug and gun charges against a man last month when a narcotics officer was accused of making up information on search warrants.
The revelations in New York have triggered internal affairs inquiries, transfers of commanders and reviews of dozens of other arrests involving the accused officers. Many drug defendants’ cases have been tossed out. Others have won favorable plea deals.
The misconduct “strikes at the very heart of our system of justice and erodes public confidence in our courts,” said Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson.
Despite the fallout, authorities describe the corruption allegations as aberrations in a city where officers daily make hundreds of drugs arrests that routinely hold up in court. They also note none of the cases involved accusations of organized crews of officers using their badges to steal or extort drugs or money for personal gain — the story line of full-blown corruption scandals from bygone eras.
Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agrees the majority of narcotics officers probably are clean. But he also believes the city’s unending war on drugs will always invite corruption by some who don’t think twice about framing suspects they’re convinced are guilty anyway.
Prohibition creates a black market and a black market creates a distorted market situation waiting to be exploited. And those who are most incentivized to exploit it are those closest to it with the most power to cover up their actions.