Officer Down

Seven years ago Tony DiIoia was a bright-eyed Minneapolis rookie. Then came the beatings, the lawsuits, and the pink slip.

John Engle, a boyhood pal of DiIoia's who joined the sheriff's department in February 1998, supports some of his friend's assertions. The sheriff, he says, never made a secret of his feelings about DiIoia: "He said, 'You're new here, and if you want to succeed, you better be careful who you associate with.' The dislike for Tony was so extreme and so well known, the supervisors would pick on Tony for any little thing. It was awful, but I was still on probation, so I didn't say anything."

Engle says he also concluded that the department was biased in the investigation of the Afton beating: A former partner who was assigned to the Minnesota Gang Strike Task Force, he says, told him that "Washington County sent over an investigator who said, 'Yeah, as far as we're concerned, the incident with DiIoia was fabricated. He made the whole thing up, and we're not going to look into it any more.' I was dumbfounded. His eyes were black and blue and swollen shut. How do you do that to yourself?"

Less than a year after being hired, in October 1998, Engle quit the department and accepted a position as a Minneapolis officer. But on his way out the door, he handed the sheriff a resignation letter complaining about the department's treatment of DiIoia.

Robert Gherardi

Frank denies ever even mentioning DiIoia to Engle by name. The sheriff says he only cautioned the rookie that the selection of a mentor is important. As for his department's finding of excessive force against DiIoia, Frank argues that the morass of litigation has created a no-win situation.

"These are some pretty hard decisions," he explains. "Who's that guy that wrote 'What a tangled web we weave'? That's kind of what this is, a very tangled web. He's fighting us, saying we shouldn't have fired him, and, on the other side, we've got all these lawsuits saying, 'You should have gotten rid of him, you should have known about him long ago.'"

In the end, Frank says, the department decided to issue its excessive-force finding against DiIoia despite the liability concerns. "If we do a thorough investigation and we get to the bottom of it and we take action, it may very well be used against us. So then you make an ethical decision: Do you do the right thing, or do you try and protect the dollars? We let the chips fall where they may."

Actually, says former Bellevue, Washington, police chief D.P. Van Blaricom, Frank's action may have been just what the lawyer ordered. As civil-rights suits against law-enforcement agencies have become more common, he offers, sheriffs and chiefs have been faced with a choice: pay out big settlements or identify, and deal with, thumpers. The latter, says Van Blaricom--who now makes his living as an expert witness in excessive-force lawsuits--is best achieved by looking for certain well-established clues: a pronounced interest in the tools and accessories of the job, an unusual number of civilian complaints, evidence of unusual behavior.

One sign of trouble, Van Blaricom continues, is a pattern of arrests where the only crime is the suspect's conduct toward a cop. "You look for misdemeanor assaults on a police officer, obstructing or resisting. And you have to look for citizen complaints, and people being taken to the hospital after being arrested. Those are all warning signs." Typically, Van Blaricom says, the first people to notice such tendencies are fellow street cops and immediate supervisors.

Van Blaricom says administrators making hiring decisions also need to carefully review the personnel and medical files of cops they hire from other agencies--particularly if there's evidence that an officer, like Tony DiIoia, has been treated for posttraumatic stress disorder. That diagnosis, Van Blaricom adds, ought to send up warning flags.

So how come Sheriff Frank didn't seem to know about DiIoia's past difficulties when he was hired? DiIoia insists that he disclosed his condition to a psychiatrist in the course of his pre-employment screening. Still, he acknowledges, the sheriff didn't seem to be aware of the diagnosis until the workers' comp flap.

Frank won't address the subject explicitly. "When we hired him, we were satisfied with the information we had," he says, noting that the department had been pleased with DiIoia in his previous part-time work on water patrol. "Let's put it this way," he adds, "if someone has had some sort of medical treatment, we might not always know."

As it happens, attorney Bennett is very interested in what Frank knew and when he knew it--and a jury, he ventures, will be too. "It could play out a bunch of different ways," the attorney says. "A better case for the county would be that they were in a significant remediation phase. They were having him see a psychologist or a psychiatrist, they were limiting his contact with the public, and this happened anyway." Conversely, he opines, "if they knew after he'd gotten beaten that he had a problem and they were building a file to terminate him, but waited for John Buelow to come along, that cuts against the county. That means they allowed him to be in a spot where he could perpetrate an injury on the public."

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