The sordid mess created by Traverse City police officer Joseph Soffredine and his various enablers may be just the ticket for much-needed reforms in local law enforcement circles.
Soffredine's arrest last week on a drunken-driving charge -- two months after the incident -- and pending discipline against two county sheriff's deputies who tried to protect him should prod police leaders to finally deconstruct the blue wall nonsense that permeates the region.
If there's one thing that's become crystal clear since the Record-Eagle broke the news of Soffredine's Feb. 7 early morning crash and car fire, it's the public's disgust with tough-on-crime cops who suddenly look the other way when their brethren break the law.
It's time to halt the double standards. Time to crumble the blue wall, the cops-protecting-cops mentality that mocks the law and tarnishes honest, ethical officers.
It's up to police leaders to send a loud-and-clear message to their troops: Enforce the law fairly and equitably for all, including our own, or else.
If brass won't make that pledge, if rank-and-file won't take the vow, they need to be sent packing.
Soffredine's crash exposed a deep-seated, frankly corrupt mindset among too many local officers: Brothers in arms get a free pass if they violate laws they're sworn and paid to uphold.
Years ago, Soffredine, 38, was convicted of a crime for an alcohol-fueled assault. Nonetheless, he later secured a job with the Traverse City Police Department, helmed at the time by his father, Ralph Soffredine, now a Traverse City commissioner.
On Feb. 6 and early the following morning, Joseph Soffredine cut quite a swath through the Traverse City pub scene. Witnesses saw him at no fewer than three bars over a span of about five hours. Several off-duty police officers acknowledged seeing him, but oddly, they all claimed they couldn't recall glimpsing a drink in his hand.
Just like Sgt. Schultz, from the old Hogan's Heroes sitcom, they SAW NOTHING!
Other witnesses, however, including a deputy's wife, saw Soffredine with alcohol, while a bouncer said a drunken Soffredine grabbed him by the throat. A patron at the nearby House of Doggs restaurant who lipped off to Soffredine found himself buckled backward over a table in the clutches of the 235-pound officer.
A little more than an hour later, at 3:20 a.m., Soffredine wheeled his SUV straight where he should have curved on Cedar Run Road and wound up deep in a wooded area, stuck in muck and snow.
A clear-thinking person may have called for a tow, but Soffredine frantically gunned the vehicle and sparked an engine fire that engulfed the SUV.
Passersby alerted authorities and Grand Traverse County deputies Robert Sillers and Mark Noffke found a burning car and an off-duty local police officer who'd allegedly hit a patch of ice. Several witnesses, including firefighters who doused the blaze, effectively melted the icy road claim.
Not to worry. Highly trained deputies Sillers and Noffke indulged Soffredine by listing icy roads on their accident report (records falsification, anyone?) And the deputies apparently dozed through drunken-driving investigation school. A 3:20 a.m. car crash in the woods and resultant fire from manic over-revving just might indicate a booze connection, but Soffredine never was given field sobriety tests or a preliminary breath test.
Finally, they didn't bother to run Soffredine's license plates. If they had, they might have noted the plates had expired six months earlier.
Are Sillers and Noffke incompetent or corrupt? Some of each, perhaps. But should the community trust them to carry a gun and badge?
The incident is an ugly wound for Grand Traverse-area law enforcement. And while Soffredine, Sillers and Noffke represent just the latest examples of bad behavior among local cops, they offer police brass a grand opportunity to halt the above-the-law lunacy.
There are good signs, particularly from Grand Traverse Sheriff Tom Bensley, who promised to investigate and let the chips fall where they may. And county Prosecutor Alan Schneider charged Soffredine, though his hard evidence may be thin.
That's a good start. But it's likely going to take commitment, integrity -- and a maybe a sledgehammer -- to pulverize this traditional and rock-solid blue wall.