UNFIT FOR DUTY
SPECIAL REPORT: Police agencies undermine system
Part 6: Local law enforcement departments enable troubled officers by not reporting violations
Published: Sunday, December 11, 2011 at 6:14 p.m.
In early 1998, Leesburg city officials set out to fire Officer Anthony Brown after two of his confidential informants separately said they had sex with him.
Brown denied the claims during an internal affairs investigation, but detectives believed the women, one of whom precisely described what Brown looked like naked.
Brown challenged the termination and threatened the city with a discrimination lawsuit — so the city offered him a deal.
In a written agreement the Herald-Tribune found in city records, Leesburg's city manager agreed to drop the sex investigation if Brown agreed to resign. The city also pledged to report in official records that Brown's departure was his own decision — a "voluntary separation" — and not the result of misconduct.
Brown signed the agreement. The next day, he sent his application out to find another job in law enforcement.
Despite laws that, on paper, make Florida one of the most progressive states in the nation at handling cases of police misconduct, local agencies frequently undermine the system and enable the careers of troublesome officers, the Herald-Tribune found.
Unlike many other states, Florida law makes completed internal affairs investigations available to the public. Serious cases of misconduct — known as "moral character violations" — that have been substantiated by investigators must be reported to a commission within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. And when an officer leaves an agency, the reason must be reported and the paperwork remains in an officer's personnel file for the duration of his or her career.
But during an eight-month investigation that included a review of the personnel files of more than 250 officers, the newspaper found the extent of officer misconduct in Florida had been hidden due to numerous violations of state laws and procedures:
•Local departments fail to report all sustained moral character violations to Florida's Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, the FDLE division responsible for officer certification.
A Herald-Tribune analysis of the internal affairs logs of 30 sheriff's and police departments found cases in nearly every agency that could have been sent to the state but were not. That included the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, which never notified the FDLE that a former deputy, Shepard Woodson, tried to help a prisoner collect a debt on the street.
•Agencies can obscure the real reason officers leave by what they enter as a "separation code" in the state's officer tracking database. The database is considered important enough that agencies are required to check it before hiring a candidate. The records from the database are often kept in an officer's personnel file.
Woodson, the Manatee County jailer, is listed in the system as a "voluntary separation" even though he resigned while under investigation for the incident with the inmate.
•Local internal affairs investigators can also keep an officer's misconduct case in-house, and not send it to the FDLE, by downplaying the incident as an agency violation instead of a moral character violation.
In a 2000 investigation, four women accused former Sarasota County Chief Deputy Larry Dunklee of various forms of sexual harassment, including rubbing up against them, grabbing his crotch and an unwelcome kiss. However, the agency only cited Dunklee for discourtesy — an agency violation that would not be sent to the FDLE. The only reason Dunklee was cited for discourtesy was because he had been instructed to apologize for his behavior but instead told one of the women that she should not have been looking at his crotch.
•Thirty-one of Florida's 67 sheriffs ignored the Herald-Tribune's public records requests for their internal affairs case logs, and two claimed to not have one at all. In addition, more than a dozen agencies failed to comply with numerous requests for an officer's personnel file, including a request sent by the Herald-Tribune's attorney.
Even more agencies returned files that are devoid of negative information that should be there. The Levy County Sheriff's Office file on officer Steven Ippolito includes only one mention of a relationship with a teenager. The file does not include a lengthy FDLE investigation in which agents found Ippolito may have had a sexual relationship with a 15-year old girl and that he may have been the father of her child. The FDLE inquiry was called off only after Ippolito married the teen.
•State records retention laws permit agencies to destroy internal affairs investigations after one to seven years, depending on the outcome of the case. Destroying the records eliminates a potentially valuable resource for investigators in the event of future complaints, and many agencies keep them for that reason. But others do not, including the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, whose contract with the union calls for the agency to destroy the records as soon as the law allows.
Like the example of Brown in Leesburg, the Herald-Tribune uncovered a written agreement between St. Cloud city officials and former officer John Wahl that hid allegations of misconduct.
Wahl faced termination over the misuse of his position and for contributing to the deliquency of a minor. He resigned after the city agreed to report that he left for reasons other than misconduct.
Wahl ultimately joined the Ketchikan Police Department in Alaska in 2003, and his employment application there makes no mention of his problems in Florida. An official with the department confirmed that Wahl no longer worked there, but would not say why he left. He is currently working as an officer at the Douglas Police Department in Wyoming.
Brown, who quietly resigned from Leesburg, stayed in Florida and worked another decade in law enforcement after being accused of having sex with informants.
Records show he faced discipline from state officials twice while with the Sneads Police Department — for assault in 2000 and for offering a woman marijuana in exchange for sex in 2002.
He later moved on to the Gadsden County Sheriff's Office, where his career ended in 2008 when an internal affairs investigation found he had stolen $10,000 worth of gas from the county's tanks.
Glen Hopkins, the Bureau Chief of Standards for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, called the agreements with Brown and Wahl "egregious situations."
"I think that is not understanding our process," Hopkins said. "We are always trying to educate."
IGNORING THE FDLE
Since 2005, the FDLE has had the authority to charge agency heads that violate state reporting requirements. However, the FDLE has never disciplined an agency and Hopkins said he does not have enough staff to conduct regular audits.
But even mishandled cases that are brought to the FDLE's attention result in nothing more than a letter from the agency.
In the Brown case, FDLE staffers questioned Leesburg about why it had not forwarded its report. A city staff member rebuffed the FDLE request for documents, telling state officials that the "information was not available."
The FDLE sent a letter scolding the city for dropping the investigation, saying the law requires them to complete the inquiry even when an officer resigns.
Citing the lack of cooperation from the city, FDLE dropped its inquiry and allowed Brown to keep his badge. Weeks later, he took a job with the Sneads Police Department.
Another case involved Levy County deputy Charles Johnson, who was found to have had an unprofessional relationship with a female inmate. The investigation was not sent to state officials until someone anonymously reported the case to the FDLE.
A subsequent investigation of Johnson found he repeatedly used his Taser to discipline his dog and that he fondled a pregnant woman and masturbated in her driveway. During the course of that inquiry, records show the sheriff pressed an internal affairs investigator to allow Johnson's father, a Sheriff's Office major, to review the case before it was finished.
Despite multiple requests from the sheriff, the detective refused, citing state law that prevents the disclosure of internal affairs records until an inquiry is finished.
The sheriff was not disciplined.
'WE MESSED UP'
The lack of enforcement is part of a culture where local agencies appear to pick and choose what gets sent to the state for review.
Within the internal affairs logs of the Sarasota and Manatee County Sheriff's Departments, the Herald-Tribune found half a dozen cases from the past five years that could be considered moral character violations but were not sent to the state commission responsible for officer certification.
Manatee County deputy Christopher Francis was caught illegally possessing a silencer and two fully-automatic pistols. Sarasota deputy Jeffrey Zalud knocked out a man in handcuffs. And the Sarasota Sheriff's Office fired deputy Dino Charters in 2007 after an investigation found he fondled himself while watching a female juvenile in the jail's shower room.
Those are the types of cases the FDLE wants to review, but the state never heard about any of them.
After questions were raised about those and other cases, Lt. Mike Mercurio, head of the Sarasota County internal affairs unit, said he called the FDLE two weeks ago and reported four of the cases to them.
"We made a mistake," Mercurio said. "We messed up."
Mercurio's counterpart in Manatee County said he would send at least two cases, Woodson and Francis, to the FDLE.
"They should have been sent," said Ed Judy, head of Manatee's internal affairs department.
Elsewhere, some agencies have not reported a moral character violation for years.
At the Union County Sheriff's Office, a small Panhandle agency with eight full-time deputies, officials said they had no misconduct case log, despite a state law that requires an agency to keep one. The state's discipline data shows the agency has not reported a misconduct violation since 1985.
"We really pride ourselves in being a good agency," said Lt. Lyn Williams, the internal affairs chief.
No other agency has gone nearly that long without a complaint. During a November interview, FDLE officials said they intend to ensure Union County is following the law.
"That seems like an awfully long time, yeah," said Stacy Lehman, a commission staffer.
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