Tempe’s police chief violated ethical standards by writing a letter on behalf of a councilwoman’s son arrested for growing marijuana, an investigation has found.
The inquiry, released Tuesday, said Chief Ralph Tranter hurt the department by recommending a judge impose probation at the same time his subordinates were helping prosecutors assemble their case.
That infuriated some of Tranter’s subordinates, who raised questions about how the police department handled the case of Colby Carter, son of Councilwoman Barb Carter.
However, the investigation found Tranter did not try to help Colby Carter as payback for any political favors his mother might be able to make.
The chief’s fate was unclear Tuesday. City Manager Will Manley said he needed time to digest the inquiry before considering any action. The chief remained on the job, and Manley offered some praise for Tranter’s nearly 30-year career.
For now, Manley said, “The report speaks for itself.”
Colby Carter was arrested on suspicion of five felony charges in March 2005, when police found 18 marijuana plants and a sophisticated growing operation in his Tempe home. Colby Carter is a 31-year-old professional skateboarder and skate park designer. He faced three years in prison but was sentenced to probation and community service.
Manley launched the inquiry in October, when somebody in the police department gave him a letter Tranter wrote for Colby Carter’s defense attorney.
In it, Tranter requested a judge consider probation because he believed Colby Carter was turning his life around and had strong family support. Tranter did not write the letter on city stationery or identify himself as the police chief to avoid a conflict of interest, he told investigators.
Tranter supplied the letter to Carter’s defense attorney, James C. Martin, and explicitly told him not to mention his role as police chief, according to the report. But Martin sent a package of character references to prosecutors — and called attention to the fact one was from Tempe’s top cop.
The $15,000 investigation, done by the Phoenix law firm of Quarles & Brady StreichLang, criticized Tranter for thinking he could write the letter as a private citizen without others knowing his position.
Tranter acknowledged the potential conflict of interest in a letter to Manley.
“In hindsight I realize it was a poor decision to put myself in that position,” Tranter wrote.
“I obviously need to be more judicious in the future to avoid the detrimental effect this situation has on employee morale. For that I apologize to you and the members of the Police Department. In the future I will seriously consider the consequences of similar actions and take the necessary steps to avoid conflicts and the perceptions of conflicts.”
A city spokesman said Tranter would not comment Tuesday.
The inquiry reveals at least one cop involved with the investigation was suspicious of Tranter’s motives. The sergeant complained the chief sent mixed signals by encouraging officers to go after crime at the same time he writes letters on behalf of people the department has arrested. The city blocked out the names of officers involved in the case.
Tranter told that sergeant he has written similar letters to help other community members in legal trouble. The sergeant saw this as a lack of support for officers charged with investigating crimes.
“I do not understand how he did not see that this letter, written in support of a suspect involved in our case, is in direct conflict with his own directives to us,” the sergeant wrote.
That sergeant and two of his detectives were disciplined two years earlier for their handling of a massage parlor investigation. The sergeant wrote he was upset Tranter held his subordinates accountable for mistakes, but not himself.
Tranter and Barb Carter knew each other for years but did not socialize, they told investigators. Tranter said he spoke with the councilwoman about her son after the arrest and wanted to meet him. After a lunch meeting, Tranter said he decided to write a letter on Colby’s behalf.
Barb Carter told investigators she feared Tranter’s letter could create a backlash and hurt her son. An investigator asked the police officer who made the department’s sentencing recommendation to the court whether Tranter’s letter influenced him. The officer said he would have made the same recommendation if Tranter had never written the letter.
“He received a fair sentence, but it is unfortunate that a young man’s mistake has been slanted and unfairly exposed in a very public manner for the political expediency of a few,” Barb Carter wrote in a statement.