JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — An attorney helping a former prosecutor in her whistleblower complaints against the Johnson City Police Department says a newly released report on how the department handled sexual assault investigations buttresses his client’s claims.
“What this report does is actually establish a pattern and practice of misconduct and investigative misconduct by the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD),” Andrew Bakaj of the national non-profit Whistleblower Aid told News Channel 11.
“That very well could affect how the Department of Justice and the federal government can look at and consider whether or not to open up its own investigation into this matter.”
Bakaj was referring to findings from Daigle Law Group’s (DLG) highly critical report that the city released Tuesday.
The city hired DLG weeks after former federal prosecutor Kat Dahl filed a federal lawsuit claiming she was terminated by then-JCPD chief Karl Turner in retaliation for pressing JCPD to further investigate multiple sexual assault allegations against downtown business owner Sean Williams.
After Dahl filed that suit in late June 2022, Whistleblower Aid stepped forward to help Dahl make what founder John Tye called “lawful disclosures” to the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General and the Public Integrity Section of its Civil Rights Division. The group’s senior counsel, Bakaj, is now working that end of Dahl’s multi-pronged legal battle against the JCPD and Johnson City. He said the findings suggest the real possibility within JCPD of discriminatory behavior — precisely the type of actions that sometimes result in federal government involvement.
“What I found that was really disturbing in this particular report was how certain stereotypes about women and victims were affecting how the police department, how officers were handling those investigations,” Bakaj said.
Among the report’s findings was a discovery of “certain practices that discourage female victims of sexual assault from collaborating with law enforcement, ultimately damaging the investigative process.”
DLG wrote that “no legitimate law enforcement purpose, or any other reason, justifies these inadequacies.”
It looked at 325 sexual assault cases over a five-year period that started in 2018, and the report also concluded “these investigative shortcomings seem to stem from misconceptions and stereotypes about women and victims of sexual assault.”
‘Pattern and practice’
As it relates to whistleblower claims, the report opens up a new front, Bakaj said. Prior to its release, the claims about JCPD and sexual assault primarily surrounded Williams, in whose apartment police discovered a list of more than 20 names with the word “raped” written at the top. Williams, who is now in prison facing federal weapons charges, was never charged with any sexual assault.
Dahl’s lawsuit claims she learned of more than a half dozen alleged victims, and a recently filed separate lawsuit requests damages from the city on behalf of nine of them. Daigle’s report broadens the claims of investigative misconduct.
“Now we have multiple victims and multiple suspects, and I do believe that this really could change the dynamics of how things can proceed … that can reignite interest on part of the federal government to look into this as far as the pattern and practice issue with the local police department in Johnson City,” Bakaj said.
He hopes the Department of Justice (DOJ) or some office within the federal executive branch “would take a close look at this report and assess ‘how have victims been historically treated or mistreated by the department.
“If there has been discrimination and disparate treatment because somebody is female, that has to be addressed one way or the other.”
Bakaj doesn’t know of any movement by DOJ or any other entity regarding Dahl’s whistleblower claims. But the attorney for an organization that has made big headlines representing people such as Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said he “wouldn’t be surprised if this new Daigle report would change the dynamics on that.”
‘Healing’ and change the ultimate goals
Regardless of the ultimate outcome at DOJ or in civil court with Dahl and the alleged Sean Williams victims’ lawsuits, Bakaj said the light shone on JCPD will have been worth it if the department becomes exemplary in its handling of sexual assault investigations and other cases involving women.
“It’s not that this report vindicates (Dahl) as much as it establishes why she did it,” he said. “It’s to get to the truth of what did or didn’t happen, so that way the victims can be afforded not just justice, but an opportunity for closure, understanding that closure is different for every single individual.”
While the report is highly critical and quite exhaustive, Bakaj said the city deserves some credit for having it done. City Manager Cathy Ball has refused to directly link it to the Dahl/Williams case, but that lawsuit brought citizens to City Hall in protest and she has said those “citizen concerns” drove the city to seek an independent audit.
“The goal here is to help the victims of the past who have been mistreated, but it’s also about ensuring that there is a process for those in the future,” Bakaj said.
“Because the sad truth is, crimes of this nature occur, and we have to have law enforcement in place that can handle and do the best job that they possibly can in the best interest of those who have been physically harmed.”
He said if the city moves forward and does the work necessary to enact major changes, the report’s release can be the beginning of a healing process.
“It’s a healing process for the victims, it’s a healing process for the community, and I would even go as far as to say it’s a healing process for the police department.
“Because it is not a good report. The question is, how can you take this information as difficult as it may be, and make things better? There’s only one way to go after a report like that, and it should be up.”