Cops, Crimes, and Videoptape

Nine months after he seized and erased a private citizen's video cassette, a Coral Gables lawman finally feels the heat

Coral Gables police officer Alan Davis continues to be haunted by the strange events of last Halloween. That was the night Nancy Frost, a 31-year-old Gables resident, was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving. As Davis walked her through a sobriety test in front of Doc Dammers Saloon on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, a goblin appeared.

Guillermo Casulo was across the street, standing at the second-floor window of an architect's office. In his hand he held a Panasonic video camera, which he used to record Frost's moment of public humiliation.

Officer Davis spied the amateur filmmaker and lost no time in marching across the boulevard, climbing the stairs to the second floor, and demanding that Casulo give him the videotape. After a brief tug of war, Davis ended up with the video. He then returned to his squad car, inserted Casulo's cassette in the car's dash-mounted video recorder, and erased it. Frost was arrested on charges of driving without headlights and operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

Neither Davis nor any of the other four officers on the scene reported the Casulo encounter to their supervisors. Frost, however, raised the matter in January when she brought it to the attention of the traffic judge handling her case. "There were two pieces of evidence," she announced, "and one was destroyed." Five months later Frost's case vanished like an apparition after Judge Jonathan Colby dismissed it for lack of evidence.

Prosecutors at the Dade State Attorney's Office, who had been tipped off to the Halloween affair, declined to press charges against Davis. But Frost's revelation did lead to an internal police investigation. Last week, nine months after the incident, and in the wake of the Los Angeles Police Department scandal ignited by the videotaped beating of Rodney King, the results were made public. A five-member panel that included Coral Gables Police Chief Charles Skalaski and Internal Affairs Capt. Alan R. Headley unanimously voted to reprimand Davis for two offenses: confiscating Casulo's videotape, and subsequently erasing it. "He should not have done that," says Headley, adding that Davis's punishment was not more severe because of the officer's otherwise stellar record. "You can ask for anything, but really, it's private property." Headley concedes that "videotape as it relates to police matters is really a whole new area" and that Coral Gables would consider special training for its officers to avoid similar problems in the future.

In addition to the letter of reprimand, Davis, a DUI specialist who has completed dozens of courses in identifying and dealing with drunk drivers, had his official responsibilities curtailed. Last month the five-year veteran was told he could no longer address civic groups as a representative of the city. He was also removed from Coral Gables's elite DUI Task Force, which scours the municipality in search of inebriated drivers. He can still stop suspected drunks, but he will not be among the select few officers who patrol in specially equipped cars with dash-mounted video cameras to film roadside sobriety tests.

Frost's attorney, Michael Seward, says his client agrees with Davis's punishment "insofar as it is a recognition from the City of Coral Gables that an impropriety took place. If the reprimand sends a message to police officers that they better think twice before they violate a person's civil rights, then the reprimand is effective." But Seward quickly adds, "If it doesn't send that message, then it is not effective.

 
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