Part 2b: Ferndale PD’s internal investigation sheds light on an imperfect process

If you missed Part 1 and 2, catch up by viewing them in our Learn Why We Believe Police Reform is Necessary series.

In Part 2 of our Learn Why We Believe Police Reform is Necessary series, the Riveters’ Justice System Committee identified concerning trends in the investigations of complaints against Ferndale Police Department officers. In Part 2b, we continue the story by reviewing the investigation into Officer Langton’s alleged contact with the Oath Keepers. We also examine how thorough Ferndale PD was in their investigation after we obtained three interview recordings and the investigation report.

Ferndale PD took atypical steps for this investigation

In total, the JSC has reviewed records for 20 investigations conducted after a complaint was made about a Ferndale police officer. In all cases, a primary investigator, usually a lieutenant or sergeant with the Ferndale PD, conducts the investigation and the Ferndale police chief signs his approval of the investigator’s recommended result. The Langton/Oath Keepers investigation was handled differently, however, likely because the allegation made national news.

In this case, Chief Turner reviewed the investigator’s completed report, then directed the investigator to ask more probing questions. Chief Turner also provided his own 13-page written review of the investigation. This is not normal practice based on the other complaint investigations we reviewed from Ferndale PD and other local law enforcement. 

The primary investigator failed to properly investigate the allegation

It’s clear Ferndale gave this investigation the utmost scrutiny, knowing journalists and other interested parties would review the results closely. We believe that if this investigation had followed the path of other complaint investigations by Ferndale PD, it would have fallen well short of a thorough investigation.

With the exception of the investigator’s recommendation to train and educate officers about groups like the Oath Keepers, we have the following concerns about his investigation approach and documentation:

  • The investigator tainted the report with bias:
    • The investigator implies that little was known about the Oath Keepers on February 4, 2021, when the email was sent, and therefore determined that a “reasonable person” wouldn’t have known on that date that contacting the Oath Keepers would’ve been “unbecoming a member of this department”. The Oath Keepers, however, made national news prior to the November 2020 election and became a household name well before February 4. 2021. We know this because NPR and CNN reported on January 1 and 27, 2021 about the Oath Keepers’ involvement in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Based on this, we believe a reasonable person should have known by February 4, 2021 that contacting the Oath Keepers would reflect poorly on the department.
    • The investigator highlights three times that the Oath Keepers email was acquired illegally and, therefore, not meant to be made public. This opinion by the investigator appears to be an attempt to redirect readers’ views about the allegation by implying it was an invasion of privacy.
    • The investigator failed to accurately document Langton’s complaint history by leaving out the following information:
      • The August 2020 civil rights complaint lawsuit against Officer Langton filed in federal court. 
      • The previous 17 unsustained complaints on Langton’s record. Instead of acknowledging this complaint history, the investigator noted that “since joining the department in 2012, there have been no observations of Officer REDACTED to suggest a propensity towards a disregard of a person’s civil rights…”. Due to the number of complaints filed against Officer Langton as compared to other officers, the JSC doesn’t agree.
    • The investigator provided favorable information about Officer Langton that is unrelated to this case when he wrote that “Officer REDACTED was awarded a Certificate of Commendation…and selected Patrol Partner of the Year…” in 2021.
    • The investigator used information from a 2012 background check into Officer Langton as evidence that he is “honorable and honest” and that he is “not now, or ever been a member of any foreign or domestic organization, association, movement, or group” that advocates for violence or seeks to alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means. This hardly seems relevant given the amount of time that has passed and the number of hate and anti-government groups (that recruit military and law enforcement personnel) that have gained traction since that background check was conducted.

  • Prior to having his report reviewed by Chief Turner, the investigator failed to ask Officer Langton if the email address belonged to him and, if so, when he last accessed the account. These questions should have been part of the initial line of questioning.

  • The investigator did not appear to investigate whether Langton made inappropriate posts on social media accounts or if he contacted the Oath Keepers (or other concerning groups) by email prior to February 1, 2021 from other personal email accounts.

Chief Turner’s review provided more depth to the investigation

  • Because of Chief Turner’s recommendation to ask follow up questions, we learned the email account belonged to Langton and that he accessed it as recently as the week of September 27, 2021, just days before BuzzFeed News reported on it. Unfortunately, Chief Turner incorrectly stated several people “had accessed” Langton’s email account when Langton only stated people could have had access to his email account when he left it open on his computer.

  • Ferndale PD’s policy narrowly defines unacceptable conduct, which means the Oath Keepers would need to be defined as a hate group or criminal organization for the conduct to be considered unbecoming or reflect unfavorably upon the department.

  • Chief Turner used Wikipedia to evaluate the reliability of groups associated with the released Oath Keepers email by painting both organizations far more negatively than the website describes. He stated that BuzzFeed News is “a largely unreliable internet media news” and highlights portions of the site that call into question their credibility. The website, however, also states that BuzzFeed News “largely follows established rules of journalism” and has won awards and recognition for several news-breaking stories that proved accurate. He takes the same approach with Distributed Denial of Secrets, the group that provided BuzzFeedNews the hacked email. He described them as a “criminal hacker group” and “significant threat”. According to Wikipedia, this group is described by Wired as “a transparency collective of data activists”, by the New York Times as a “watchdog group” and by Business Insider as a “freedom-of-information advocacy group”. Based on these alternative views of these groups, the JSC does not agree with Chief Turner that the allegation could not be credible because it was “unsubstantiated information obtained by illegal means sourced from a criminal hacker group”.

  • Chief Turner requested a search of City and PD servers to determine if anyone within the City had communicated by email with the Oath Keepers. This shows he made an attempt to look into this more broadly, but, unfortunately, the search date range only went back to February 1, 2021.

The JSC encourages Ferndale to take this opportunity to improve

For transparency and accountability, police reform experts advise that police conduct investigations should be conducted from outside the department for which the officer works and by an oversight board that includes civilians. It does not appear from the obtained records that Ferndale sought options or opinions from outside the Ferndale PD.

Following the news that Officer Langton returned to duty after the investigation found the allegation unfounded, the JSC sent Ferndale officials a letter summarizing our concerns about the complaint investigation process and providing resources for improving police policies and union contracts. Mayor Hansen kindly acknowledged receipt of our letter and explained the City’s plans to review their policies and procedures.

We’ve asked Mayor Hansen and Chief Turner to go beyond this particular Oath Keepers incident and evaluate which police policies and union contract language would allow an officer 1) with lengthy complaint histories to be hired, and 2) to continue in this line of work when the public feels harmed or threatened by their behavior. We believe this recent allegation and investigation should indicate failures in Ferndale’s current policies and processes.