UNFIT FOR DUTY
SPECIAL REPORT: Unions protect problem officers
Part 3: Florida's two police unions use their political clout to push for changes in disciplinary process
Published: Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 1:00 a.m.
HERALD-TRIBUNE ARCHIVE / 2011 / CRAIG LITTEN
The 19-member Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission has the power to end an officer's career. Ernie George, left, the chairman of the commission, and Brian Fernandes, statewide prosecutor and CJSTC general counsel, listen to an officer plead for leniency at an August hearing in Tampa.
Florida lawmakers created the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission in 1977 to police the police.
But beginning in 1999, the commission became something else.
Following election wins secured with the backing of the Police Benevolent Association and Fraternal Order of Police, Gov. Jeb Bush and state lawmakers used the officer discipline system as a way to repay the unions for their endorsements.
Bush put Ernie George, then the president of the PBA, on the 19-member panel that decides officer discipline. George is still there today, as chairman, in the one spot state law reserves for a "Florida citizen."
The commission, which operates under the authority of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, has other responsibilities, but none more important than ridding the state of bad cops. But with George in place, the two police unions pushed for changes over the past decade that made it harder to discipline officers.
New laws and rules put more union representatives on the disciplinary panel, gave union officials more authority over who can be on the panel, limited the amount of negative information available to the commission and even eliminated the ability to punish officers who lie while under investigation.
In a written message to his membership in 2006, George summed up the accomplishments: "We were able to lobby the Legislature and pass major pieces of legislation other unions only dream about."
The unions' victories over the disciplinary process have come at a cost.
FDLE data analyzed by the Herald-Tribune show a 20 percent decline in the number of officers who have lost their certification since 2000, compared with the 15 years prior. As a practical matter, that means more officers are being sent back to work despite evidence of serious misconduct.
Mike Crews, director of the FDLE Criminal Justice Professionalism Program, said that in the past, the disciplinary panel was "hard-core" when it came to revoking certificates. If an officer lied on a timesheet, the panel was likely to end his or her career because panelists figured the officer had lied about other matters as well, Crews said.
Then, new panel members came in "and they are not that hard-core," Crews said. "Some of them are saying: 'We don't care about lying on a timesheet. Yeah it's untruthfulness, a moral character violation, but perhaps this officer is salvageable.' They tend to give the officer the benefit of the doubt."
George, the former PBA president and current union treasurer, cast the changes as a positive, saying the panel needed more "street-level officers" to act as a counterweight to the sheriffs, police chiefs and other management types who were too eager to revoke an officer's certificate. Now, six members are drawn from the ranks of sergeant and below — all of whom are either union representatives or members.
"Some officers had no power in the past," George said. "I personally think it's a good thing to have a different perspective, from street-level officers, on the panel."
Nelson Cuba, an FOP lodge president from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office who has served on the commission since 2005, agreed that the changes to the disciplinary process were necessary.
"Officers make mistakes. Everyone does," Cuba said. "But does that mean every time an officer makes a mistake we automatically cut off their heads? Or should we look at those who are salvageable and help them move on with their careers?"
FAVORS FROM POLITICIANS
The PBA has been a force in Florida politics for years, with lawmakers courting the votes and donations that follow an endorsement from the state's largest law enforcement union. And until the early 1990s, the PBA typically threw its weight behind Democratic candidates.
But citing financial concerns, former Gov. Lawton Chiles took a hard stance against approving new pension benefits favored by the union. So in 1994, the PBA backed Jeb Bush in what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Chiles. Four years later, the PBA backed Bush again. This time he won, defeating Chiles' lieutenant governor, Buddy McKay.
The first bill Bush signed as governor: The police pension bill that Chiles had vetoed.
But much more quietly, the PBA worked to reshape something it also considered vital.
In a 2010 message to PBA members, the executive director, David Murrell, explained how George had "made a project of educating Jeb about the need to reform membership" of the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission. Once Bush won election, George "continued that education with Governor Bush."
"In all the meetings where we met with the governor, and there were many, it seemed like the topic of CJSTC came up just about every time," Murrell wrote. "We found a sympathetic and most helpful ear."
Bush's press secretary emailed the Herald-Tribune in response to a request for an interview on the topic:
"Governor Bush's appointments were made in keeping with the guidelines outlined in statute, not based on any union bias one way or the other. To construe otherwise is incorrect."
Bush has been out of office since 2006, yet the political gamesmanship surrounding the commission has persisted.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was also endorsed by the law enforcement unions, violated a state law preventing more than one person from an agency from serving on the commission. Crist's appointments put two representatives each from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, Tallahassee Police Department and Palm Beach Sheriff's Office — three strong union agencies.
Crist did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Former Attorney General Bill McCollum's hand-picked proxy on the panel, James Mann, was McCollum's director of law enforcement investigations. Mann is also a former president of the FOP, which backed McCollum in a number of elections.
McCollum could not be reached for comment.
Just this year, Attorney General Pam Bondi replaced Mann with Tampa Police Department Capt. Steve Courtoy, a former executive board member with the Tampa FOP. The state FOP endorsed Bondi during the 2010 campaign.
In a written statement, Bondi said Tampa's police chief recommended that she appoint Courtoy.
Today, eight of the 19 commission members have current or former ties with a union, including current PBA president John Rivera. Five more members are sheriffs or police chiefs who oversee a department with a union as their collective bargaining agent.
State law does not prohibit anyone from serving on the commission if he or she has been disciplined before. Such is the case with Palm Beach County Deputy Belinda Murvin.
Bush appointed Murvin in October 2006, just four months after Murvin was disciplined for cheating on an exam that raised her salary when she passed it.
Murvin did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.
George, however, played down Murvin's offense and defended her appointment to the commission.
"Basically it was a situation where she and others passed the answers to one another about a test," he said. "To me, it's not really a moral-character violation."
The commission does not keep track of whether officers from union departments, like Murvin, fare better before the panel than those who are not union members. But with union attorneys representing union officers in front of union officials on the commission, the potential for a conflict of interest exists. Both organizations tout their prowess before the commission to members and prospective members.
George said union membership is not a factor and that the panel just looks at the facts of each case.
However, at hearings in August and October, the Herald-Tribune saw instances in which a union member was given a lighter punishment than a nonunion member when both officers faced similar punishments.
For example, a homicide detective from Hialeah — a PBA department — faced the commission over charges that he broke into his estranged wife's home and then attacked her.
He was given a letter of reprimand and allowed to return to work.
Later at the same meeting in Tampa, a corrections officer with no union representation faced accusations that she did not disclose a prior relationship with an inmate. The officer, Bridget D. Kelly, explained that the man was the father of her children but that they had not communicated in years. She did not visit him, send him letters or speak to him anymore.
The commission was not convinced. It found "probable cause" and recommended that she be disciplined.
Afterward, outside the hearing room, Kelly was confused.
"The guy before me got charged with a crime," she said, referring to the Hialeah officer. "He beat somebody up and broke the law and they let him go? That doesn't make any sense to me at all. Why doesn't he get punished but I do?"
GIVING SECOND CHANCES
Whatever the cause, the state's disciplinary case logs show commissioners make inconsistent decisions and ignore or excuse evidence of misconduct.
For example, in 1998, a six-month FDLE investigation determined that Shane Rudd, a 28-year old Chattahoochee police officer, courted a troubled 15-year old girl and ultimately had sex with her. Records show Rudd promptly dumped the girl and may have given her a sexually transmitted disease.
A felony conviction would have automatically stripped Rudd of his certificate. However, the prosecutor dropped the charges at the request of the girl's mother, who did not want her daughter subjected to a trial.
Still, the prosecutor insisted that the evidence against Rudd — which included testimony from a fellow officer — was strong enough that he should never wear a badge again. The commission agreed and ended Rudd's law enforcement career during a 1999 hearing.
Three years later, the commission restored Rudd's certificate and allowed him to rejoin his former department as a sworn officer.
The decision stunned the prosecutor, who was unaware of Rudd's second chance until he was told by a Herald-Tribune reporter in August.
"I had no idea he was a cop again," said Richard Combs, the assistant state attorney. "The girl's family didn't want to go forward with the case, but I wasn't just going to let it die. I knew they had taken his badge, but I didn't know he got it back."
When asked about the Rudd case, FDLE officials called it an aberration. Rudd's alleged victim backtracked about what had happened, and that helped sway the commission despite testimony from witnesses who saw Rudd kiss the girl and one of the girl's friends who said she was nearby when the two had sex.
Nevertheless, FDLE officials said a case like Rudd's had never happened before and would never happen again.
They are wrong.
In a computer analysis of misconduct cases, the Herald-Tribune found 23 others who regained their law enforcement certificate after it had been taken away over offenses such as assault, perjury and stolen property.
About a dozen of those officers are still working today. Among them is James Foy, who was stripped of his badge in 1987 after pleading no contest to charges he had sex with a 15-year old girl while a member of the Bradenton Police Department. He is now an officer with the Lake Wales Police Department.
Glen Hopkins, the bureau chief of standards, said his staff recommended to keep Rudd decertified.
The panel disagreed.
"Which is their prerogative," Hopkins said. "They have that authority. Ninety-nine times out 100, we make the recommendation not to give that certification back."
During the June hearing in Ocala, the commission considered the fate of Carl Townsley, from the FOP-backed Escambia County Sheriff's Office.
Investigators found Townsley had jailed an innocent man, planted evidence and lied in his police report.
In an unusual move, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan sent a commander to the hearing to press the panel to revoke Townsley's certificate.
"The panel may not know the totality of the circumstances," said Cmdr. Darlene Dickey.
Commission member and FOP representative Cuba saw the Townsley case in a different light.
"If any agency was to hire this guy," Cuba said, "I don't know what to say about that agency."
The panel let Townsley keep his certificate. Townsley does not currently have a law enforcement job, but he remains eligible for one.
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