April 17, 2013 - A Detroit television news broadcast pitched the story to its viewers as a potential case of extortion within the Oxford Village Police Department – an officer requesting a citizen pay him cash for his services.
Barraco (click for larger version)
But Police Chief Mike Neymanowski said it was a situation where one of his officers didn't perform his duty, then made statements he shouldn't have as a way to vent his stress, not actually collect any money.
"In our job, we deal with a lot of frustration," he said. "I know it gets to you, but you've got to take a deep breath and get through it. We're human, too. We screw up and that's what happened here."
The officer at the center of this controversy, Todd Barraco, agreed.
"It was a stupid, sarcastic comment that was taken out of context, but nevertheless, I shouldn't have said it," he said.
On Sunday, April 7, Dryden Township resident Nathaniel Bennett called the village police seeking their help to retrieve a few personal belongings of minimal value from an ex-girlfriend who lives in the village. The two were going through a difficult breakup.
Bennett (click for larger version)
Bennett, who will turn 29 on April 26, was transferred to Officer Todd Barraco, who informed him this was a "civil matter" and that if he wanted the officer's help, he would need to pay him $500 cash. (For a transcript of the full conversation, please see the shaded box on Page 9.)
This upset Bennett.
"I reached out (for) help to where I've always been told (to go). They're (called) peace officers for a reason," he said. "My request was met with the iron wall, the iron curtain, basically. I felt like a victim – like I had nowhere else to turn."
Unbeknownst to Barraco, Bennett had recorded their telephone conversation.
"I record every call," Bennett explained. "Every phone call that is either sent out or received is recorded by my cell phone."
Bennett called it a "safety feature" to protect himself in both personal and professional conversations by making sure "if something is said, it's on record."
Barraco's statements concerned Bennett because he thought the officer was seeking a bribe. "I've researched little bits of law just for my own protection and well-being," he said. "I know that bribery is one of those things that's illegal. Say he wasn't saying it in jest and he was serious. If I had walked up to the police station and handed him $500 – and it's (recorded) on video or someone sees it – then all of the sudden, I'm in the wrong because I'm bribing a public official."
That type of situation would be of great concern to someone like Bennett, who has a criminal record. He's been convicted of arson, breaking and entering of a vehicle to steal property and malicious destruction of property in Oakland County and possession of burglar tools and a registration plate violation in Macomb.
Bennett left messages about the conversation with Neymanowski and Fox 2 News.
The chief got back with him first and the two met on April 8. Neymanowski listened to the recording from start to finish and told Bennett he'd do an internal investigation.
Fox 2 News contacted Bennett on April 9 and aired a story about the situation during its 10 p.m. broadcast.
"I honestly wasn't even sure if Fox would pick it up," Bennett said.
Bennett indicated he went to the TV news because he wanted people to know that it's "not okay" and "not legal" for "any public official" to tell people they'll do something in exchange for a personal payment.
"If we can be found guilty of a felony and go to prison for that, then they can, too," he said. "They're not above the law. You can't hide behind a badge."
Barraco, who's going on his fourth year as a part-time officer for the village, indicated his comments were made out of "pure frustration" with Bennett and stress from a separate case. He said he was not serious about wanting Bennett to pay him.
"I dealt with Mr. Bennett several times throughout the week," he said. "He's going through a rough relationship and a breakup."
Barraco said he and other officers had been attempting to help Bennett.
"I remember talking to him several times about messages (his ex-girlfriend) was sending him and I gave him options such as a PPO (Personal Protection Order), something you can enforce. I suggested blocking her calls.
"He didn't choose to do any of those options . . . Come Sunday, I think I just kind of had it with him."
It should be noted that Bennett told this reporter he didn't have any contact with the village police that week, except for Friday, when Barraco called him about arrangements to drop off some of the ex-girlfriend's property at the Dryden Police Department. Bennett said Barraco did advise him during that call to get a PPO against his ex-girlfriend.
In addition to being frustrated with Bennett and his situation, Barraco said he was dealing with another case at the time that was "stringing my emotions right along."
"The bottom-line is I should have kept my composure (with Bennett)," he said. "There's no doubt about it. I made a mistake."
Being the dean of students at Venture High School, an alternative education facility in Imlay City, Barraco knows all about the importance of owning up to one's mistakes.
"I expect (students) to come tell me when they make a mistake," he said. "We deal with it and we move on."
When asked how he should have handled the situation, Barraco said he should have "taken a step back" and either diverted the call to his sergeant's voicemail or "took a deep breath," repeated his recommendation about a PPO and "tried to help him out the best I can."
When asked what he would have done if Bennett had come to the station with $500, Barraco replied, "I'd have laughed. I would have said, 'Put it away. Let's go get your stuff.'"
Neymanowski stressed that he has no doubt that Barraco was not serious about the $500. "My gut feeling is he just made this statement to get rid of this thing, which is not right," he said. "I firmly believe if the guy had brought in $500, he wouldn't have taken it."
The chief indicated he spoke with the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office and was told that Barraco's statements didn't fall under the bribery or extortion statutes.
"We've confirmed it's none of that," he said.
"If he would have accepted the $500, he's accepting a fee for what he already gets paid for, which is not criminal," added Neymanowski, who noted it's still a violation of department policy. "I've been doing this a long time and in my mind, there was no bribery or extortion. It got carried away."
When contacted, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Paul Walton indicated he could not give a legal opinion on this situation because he has "limited facts." Basically, he only knows what's been reported in the media because "nothing has been formally submitted" to the prosecutor's office.
"We have not seen hide nor hair of one report, so to give you anything any more detailed is going to be pure speculation," he said. "We will gladly review something if they want to formally submit it."
Neymanowski said he won't be submitting anything for formal review given he does not believe Barraco's request was a genuine attempt to obtain payment.
Walton said the chief is free to make that decision. "Officers get to make that assessment all the time," he explained. "Just because it involves a police officer does not mean that everything comes to our office . . . The officers are the first screening process. They get to make the call as to how they're going to investigate and what they're going to investigate. If they feel that a crime has been committed, we will gladly review it from a legal standpoint."
The chief made it clear that Bennett asking for police assistance in an effort to recover his property and "avoid conflict" with his ex-girlfriend was a "reasonable request."
"That's what we do," Neymanowski said. "Certainly, (Barraco) violated my policies by not following up on this and doing what he's supposed to do."
The chief characterized Barraco's handling of the situation as "incompetent performance."
"He should at least follow-up, make a phone call to see what's going on with (Bennett's) property," he said. "I would expect my officers to go out on this (type of call) because you want to help avoid conflict. It's our job to do this stuff."
After the incident with Bennett was brought to his attention, Neymanowski suspended Barraco without pay. The chief is expected to make a final decision as to what Barraco's punishment will be. It could range from further suspension to termination.
The chief noted this wasn't the first time Barraco's "demeanor with citizens" has caused a problem. He previously received some "verbal counseling" from Neymanowski following an incident in which "he was a little more aggressive than he should have been" towards some parents.
Barraco and Bennett met face-to-face April 10 at the police station. The officer apologized and told Bennett that "under no circumstances should I have made those comments regardless of how emotional I was."
"He accepted the apology and realized that his emotions were also just as high," said Barraco, adding they shared "a good handshake."
"I think it ended well – the way I would like to see it end," the officer said.
Bennett's assessment of the meeting was about the same. "Officer Barraco apologized and he stated that we was under a lot of stress due to a stressful, emotional case," he said. "It was maybe 5 minutes after dealing with that, that he spoke to me (on April 7)."
"He stated that what he said he shouldn't have said. It was unprofessional, he shouldn't have said it and it doesn't excuse it by any means. I accept that."
Following the meeting, the village police served Bennett's PPO against his ex-girlfriend.
Bennett believes Neymanowski has handled this whole situation in a "very professional manner" and will continue to do so.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.