Sandy Springs cop's prostitution busts questioned

When the sexual encounter was over and police officers were seconds away from storming into the room, the Sandy Springs detective told the woman she was under arrest.

"But we had sex," the woman said. "Can you do that?"

That question goes to the heart of a discrimination lawsuit that was recently filed against the Sandy Springs Police Department by the detective involved in the prostitution sting.

In the lawsuit, among a number of other claims, Jamaal Mayberry alleges that he was unfairly targeted for punishment after being suspended for two days without pay because of his actions during three undercover prostitution investigations in 2008.

The suit, which was filed in December, has brought to light the department’s policies and general handling of such investigations.

An informal survey of law enforcement authorities, attorneys, academics and other officials turned up no definitive answer for the woman who was arrested during that undercover sting on August 19, 2008.

But all of them were unanimous in their belief that Mayberry, the Sandy Springs Police Department and any other law enforcement officer in a similar situation should not cross that line during a prostitution investigation.

"It is not necessary to go that far to make a case," said Peter Fenton, a criminal justice professor at Kennesaw State University and former officer with Cobb County. "I can't imagine that a reasonable and prudent officer -- even one not properly trained -- would engage in sexual intercourse with a prostitute."

Mayberry claimed in the lawsuit that that sort of behavior was commonplace during vice investigations. He "was singled out," the suit said. "... evidenced by the fact that he was the only officer that received any actionable reprimand, while others had the same culpability."

His attorney, Curt Thompson, previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Mayberry had been treated differently because of his race but has since repeatedly declined further comment on the case.

A review of incident reports from other prostitution investigations from 2006 to 2008 discloses that no other Sandy Springs police officer went nearly as far as Mayberry to make an arrest. But the department's subsequent internal investigation also revealed Mayberry, who started working at the agency when it launched in July 2006, and other officers did not receive training they requested before conducting the investigations.

"Mayberry's actions brought disrepute upon him and the SSPD's reputation," police Chief Terry Sult said in one of the agency's  internal reports in April 2009. "However, the actions had the unintended consequence of also bringing to light organizational and supervisory issues that needed to be addressed."

Without addressing the lawsuit or those cases specifically, Sult said the department has made progress in the last few years. Sult noted that his officers now collaborate with state and federal agencies on most busts.

He also said the agency remains vigilant about going after prostitution and illegal massage parlors and spas.

"We're proactive in everything that we do," Sult said.

Mayberry reportedly had sexual contact with women in two previous sting operations in 2008. It was on his final bust on Aug. 22 that Mayberry had intercourse with a woman before making the arrest. That incident finally caught the attention of his superiors and started the process of an internal review.

That investigation revealed a number of missteps along the way, including inadequate training for vice operations, a lack of audio surveillance to record the investigations and a "crisis in leadership" following the resignation of Police Chief Gene Wilson amid accusations of department-wide policy violations.

"Though there are many causal factors ... the lack of common sense judgment of Detective Mayberry was a key factor," Sult said in the report. "That said, the newly formed SSPD also holds direct responsibility and must be accountable as well."

Ultimately, Mayberry was suspended, the department was reorganized and all charges were dropped against the women arrested in the undercover investigations.

However, Charles Olson, the general counsel of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, told the SSPD in an e-mail in Sept. 2008 that other cases from around the country indicated "what your officers did is a legitimate investigative technique."

Olson declined comment when reached last week.

Ken Vance, director of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, said the standard tends to differ according to the agency and prosecutor. But Vance said his agency teaches officers the minimum standard needed for probable cause to make an arrest, which is usually when money is exchanged for the promise of a sexual favor.

"You've got your case right there," Vance said.

Most other legal experts agreed with Vance, saying sexual contact between an officer and a prostitute would likely diminish the case if brought before a judge or jury.

"Why jeopardize an otherwise solid case by taking a step that is not only risky but also begs more questions?" said Jeff Brickman, an Atlanta-based defense attorney and former DeKalb County district attorney.

Meanwhile, Mayberry remains a patrol officer with the SSPD. A veteran of several agencies, Mayberry was once regularly praised for his initiative and work ethic.

But in 2009, he was placed on a performance improvement plan after a low evaluation score. In November 2010, Mayberry's supervisors said he made significant improvement and recommended that he be taken off probation.

A month later, Mayberry filed the lawsuit.