Some cops bend the rules to make arrests, officials say
Published: Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 5:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 5:36 p.m.
Records show roughly 10 percent of the arrests made last year by Alachua County sheriff’s deputies and Gainesville police officers were dropped by the State Attorney’s Office for reasons related to insufficient evidence.
While the numbers do not appear out of line when compared with other judicial circuits in Florida, they do raise important questions.
Are prosecutors with high caseloads and limited resources not pushing hard enough on some cases? Is the quality of the investigations faulty?
Officials interviewed by The Sun suggest a different explanation: Some law enforcement officers are bending or even breaking the rules when they make arrests.
“Absolutely, there are certain cops where the radar goes off when we see a case,” said State Attorney Bill Cervone. Prosecutors, he said, devote more time to scrutinizing those cases before deciding how to proceed.
To be sure, Cervone, a local prosecutor since 1973, said that the number of unethical or dishonest officers with whom he has worked is small. “Fortunately, it’s been only a handful,” he said. “Just like anyplace else, you get a few bad eggs.”
Cervone’s counterpart, public defender Stacy Scott, agreed the issue is not widespread but does exist. “There are more good cops than bad, and I respect their law enforcement, they tell it just like it is,” she said. “But we know for a fact there are officers who don’t tell the truth, and it is very disturbing.”
Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell was quick to point out that the public should not judge all law enforcement officers by the actions of a few.
And, she said, they should understand the special circumstances that come with the profession.
“When citizens view the actions of a law enforcement officer, they should recognize that this job is very challenging, filled with risk and highly scrutinized. Most errors are made unintentionally,” she said.
“The criticism can be so immediate and widespread that it is demoralizing,’’ Darnell said. “Law enforcement personnel are human, too. But what is different in our profession than most is that our mistakes are out there, criticized, picked apart, rallies held against us. It adds to the stress of this profession, and this profession is already highly stressful.’’
Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.
Cervone said that when questionable actions by officers or deputies are brought to his attention, he acts.
“I have on occasion called them in and tried to explain to them what the problem was,” he said. “I have on occasion let it be known either internally or to an agency that we will not go forward on a case if this officer is the only officer available to me as the essential and only witness.
“Some cops don’t understand that they can develop a reputation for walking the line or crossing the line just like some lawyers can,” Cervone said.
Gainesville police Officer Jeff McAdams, president of the Gator Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said GPD does not compile or review data regarding dropped cases to determine if the issue is training, knowledge of the law or bad policing.
However, McAdams said such an analysis would benefit the department.
“Is it the same officers? Is it the same type of cases? What is this officer’s overall productivity level compared to another?” McAdams said. “I think it’s very important to break it down. We really need to get to the root of the issue.”
Darnell said training and experience should help deputies make cases that are based on the evidence and fairness. Deputies, she said, are told to call a supervisor for guidance or a second opinion if unsure.
“We preach ethical behavior, we preach professionalism,” she said. “We tell deputies it is OK to use your discretion as long as you have a logical framework upon which you work. You can’t get in everyone’s skin at every single call.”
The Sheriff’s Office does not regularly review dismissals from the State Attorney’s Office to identify if certain deputies or types of cases are resulting in high rates of dropped cases for insufficient evidence, she said.
Darnell added she would welcome information from prosecutors if they are having recurring issues with the arrests by a particular deputy.
“If it is someone who is a little too zealous, we put them under a good, strong supervisor and make sure they know what the issues are to look for and to correct and guide them in the correct direction,” she said.
“The majority of the time the errors and missteps are not intended and can be corrected. We get a better law enforcement officer out of the process.”
Scott said there are times when her office feels the need to take action against cops.
“We fight, we go to court. Sometimes it just takes years,” she said. “Eventually the worst offenders do something where they get caught and people all of a sudden go, ‘Wow.’
“I think the State Attorney’s Office is in a very difficult position because they are the liaison between law enforcement and the courts,” Scott said. “If we have hardcore evidence, when they can show objective facts that an officer was not being truthful ... the state attorney will take action. But these cases are rare.”
Scott pointed out that not all complaints about law enforcement officers are valid.
“As a public defender, I also understand that in the type of work that we do there is a high potential for false complaints,” she said. “Our lawyers get false complaints. I investigate all of the complaints against my attorneys, and I have found that a lot are unfounded, so I’m quite certain that when it comes to law enforcement, they have unfounded complaints, too.”
Scott said the issue speaks to the traditional closed-ranks feeling among members of law enforcement. “I think it can be difficult for them to police themselves. Viewing it from the outside, it seems to me that law enforcement is kind of a brotherhood, and there is a little bit of a tendency to want to protect your own.
“When you amass more and more evidence and there is a clear trend that someone is doing wrong, I think they get on board with it and prosecute it,’’ she said. “But when you get down to the less-extreme cases, which still may be extreme to a citizen whose rights are being violated, I think it is very hard for them to police themselves.’’
A common complaint among defense attorneys is that officers with documented problems rarely face severe punishment within their agency.
Law enforcement agencies generally have an internal review process in which complaints about an officer are investigated in-house. Any recommended disciplinary action is decided by the police chief or sheriff.
And police will sometimes investigate criminal allegations against their officers.
In 2010, for instance, former GPD Officer David Reveille entered into a plea agreement after being charged with forcing prostitutes to have sex with him while he was on duty. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
In 2009, former Cpl. Bill Billings pleaded no contest to felony charges of scheming to defraud and official misconduct. He later admitted in court that he paid women for sex while on duty.
Scott said that while the number of bad cops is small, it still has an impact.
“It doesn’t take very many to really taint the whole agency,” she said.