‘Seattle Times’ Breaks News of Police Relationships with Strippers

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(AP) Police officers involved with strippers, some at a known “vice location,” are the subjects of an internal investigation and a four-year FBI probe, The Seattle Times reported today.

In one instance, according to a Police Department report, Rusty Lee Leslie, 44, a 17-year veteran, “embraced and passionately kissed” an exotic dancer July 11 while he was in uniform in the parking lot of Rick’s on Lake City Way.

In the report, dated Dec. 14 and obtained yesterday through a public disclosure request, Capt. Neil E. Low of the department’s Office of Professional Accountability wrote:

“A public display of affection with an employee-entertainer of the club reflects negatively on the department, gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, and gives the impression the department sanctions the behavior of employees of the club,” the report said.

The dancer, who would not comment to the Times, has been cited 11 times since 1997 on accusations of having sexual contact with customers and offstage nudity, according to court records.

The strip club is a “well-known, documented vice location,” and Leslie’s conduct “raises concerns about vice detectives working covert operations at Rick’s,” the report said. “Do the detectives have to worry that an officer involved in an amorous relationship with an employee of Rick’s will reveal their covert identities or investigations?”

Leslie was suspended for a day without pay, a punishment officials did not explain. He said he would not fight the suspension and would not comment further.

Through a representative of the Seattle Police Guild, he told internal investigators he had been dating the dancer for five years and described the kiss as what one might share with a spouse or friend in a restaurant or at work.

Other officers also have come under investigation for ties to women at the club since 2001, when police informed the FBI Public Integrity Task Force that officer Rene Flores may have told an occasional Rick’s dancer, Teri Nelson, her ex-boyfriend was being sought for questioning about a killing in suburban Kirkland.

Nelson said she began dating Flores in 2001 when he appeared in uniform at a party she threw for another dancer at a downtown hotel, but only after her former boyfriend, Kyle Wilkins, had been located by police.

Flores, a six-year veteran, was fired in 2003 after he and officer Matthew Wahlgren vandalized a rookie officer’s police car, causing about $1,200 in damage while they were drunk and off-duty at a bar. The two veterans pleaded guilty to gross misdemeanors. Wahlgren also was fired. Both are seeking reinstatement.

Another officer helped quell disturbances at Rick’s informally, responding to cellular telephone calls from managers without contacting dispatchers or filing reports, two dancers told the Times.

The task force probe also covers at least five officers working off-duty at downtown nightclubs where drug dealing and liquor violations were reported, according to the Times.

Police officers getting cozy with exotic dancers is a longstanding concern, said former Lt. Richard M. Schweitzer, who retired recently after 35 years on the force, including work as a watch commander supervising some of those now under scrutiny.

“The department has never been happy about its officers dating these dancers,” Schweitzer said. “These girls often have criminal histories. Some of them use drugs. It can put officers in a very vulnerable situation.”

Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske told the Times he was aware of the parking lot and Kirkland matters and is waiting for the FBI task force’s report, which is expected soon.

Kerlikowske asserted that court decisions and arbitration rulings nationwide have hamstrung enforcement of a policy that officers “must avoid associations with persons, both on and off duty, which might reasonably be expected to compromise their integrity or credibility or the image of the department.”

Police guild president Sgt. Kevin E. Haistings said that while the behavior of some officers might embarrass the department, anything short of a violation of law or ethics should not be grounds for discipline.

Police “do not give up their constitutional rights” when they are given a badge and gun, Haistings said.

Frank Colacurcio Jr., owner and operator of Rick’s, said Thursday that he was unaware of any illegal vice activity, ties between dancers and police officers or the parking lot kiss.

“I wish if they saw anything, they would let the management know,” he said. “It would make a big difference.”

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