State Regulators Do Nothing to Sanction Bad Cops

A state agency charged with investigating complaints against police repeatedly lets troubled officers walk, a New Times investigation found.
A state agency charged with investigating complaints against police repeatedly lets troubled officers walk, a New Times investigation found.

The grainy security video shows Steven Rodgers, a 43-year-old Miami-Dade County Public Schools Police officer, inside his Miami Edison Senior High School office. His silver badge glints against the dark blue of his uniform as he grins into the camera. And his penis is in his hand as he pleasures himself at work.

The footage — filmed in 2013 — soon found its way into the hands of a Channel 7 reporter and onto the airwaves, and it lives forever today on YouTube. Rodgers' misdeed was outrageous enough. But the previously unreported aftermath is what's truly a disgrace.

The cop left the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department in April 2014 amid an uproar over the video. "We got rid of him in a heartbeat," said Lt. Raul Correa, a spokesperson for the department.

But when the state board charged with certifying police officers — called the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission — looked into Rodgers' case, they found no probable cause to sanction him or take away his license. Say what?

As it turns out, Rodgers is far from the only troubled cop allowed to walk by the 19-member commission, which is supposed to watchdog the police for violations of moral standards.

Last month, a New Times investigation found that at least 17 officers with four or more complaints reviewed by the commission were still allowed to operate in the state. That's because Florida protects police with a statute called the Officers' Bill of Rights, which requires an onerous, expensive process to investigate complaints. New Times found the statute has been beefed up by lawmakers with campaigns backed by police unions, resulting in a trail of misbehaving cops allowed to continue serving.

The untold stories behind those cases paint a picture of seriously troubled officers who face little statewide scrutiny — even when they've been fired or left their previous assignment over their malfeasance.

"In this state, you can get rid of bad teachers, but even in light of recent incidents involving police around the country, it is more difficult to discipline or fire police officers," says state Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat from Miami.

The problem seems to only be getting worse, with the commission reviewing far fewer cases in recent years — possibly because of the growing power of police unions to quash inquiries and their powerful ability to fight complaints.

"These unions are incredibly powerful, and one of the major aspects of union bargaining is disciplinary proceedings," said Seth Stoughton, a street cop for five years in Tallahassee and now an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina.

Here's how it works in Florida: When a cop gets in serious trouble, the case is sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), which supports the standards commission. The FDLE vets the case to decide if it's worthy of further discussion by the commission, which has the power to revoke licenses.

But New Times found that this process does little to protect taxpayers. Dozens of officers are employed despite racking up multiple complaints, including some with seven or eight cases. The commission regularly rules that cases fail to meet its standards for "moral character" violations even when the facts are as obvious as those in Rodgers' case.

Other decisions are just as puzzling. Take the case of Lazaro Ponce, a Miami-Dade Police officer. In May, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami announced Ponce had been arrested for his part in a bribery and kickback scheme. Ponce took money from tow truck drivers in exchange for sending them to accidents, the feds allege.

But the state commission had ample chances to get him off the streets long before then. From September 2011 to July 2015, the FDLE received three complaints against Ponce but declined to pursue any disciplinary actions against him.

In other cases, officers were canned by their departments, only to come back with another agency because of the commission's failure to act. Dewey Mullan was fired in 2001 from the Clermont Police Department because he "intimidated employees and ignored orders to turn over narcotics investigations to another officer," according to his department chief. At the time of his dismissal, Mullan was also being investigated for having sex with a dispatcher while on duty.

While in Clermont, Mullan had accumulated four other complaints with the state, including three for allegedly making false statements and one claim that he had colluded with a witness in a criminal trial to convict a suspect. But the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission declined to pursue hearings for any of those cases. So Mullan was hired in 2010 by the police department in Ocoee, a suburb of Orlando. According to his certification, he remains there today.

In 1982, corrections officers and other certified officers were added to the Officers' Bill of Rights. As a result, they've also received the same lenient treatment from state regulators.

Tony Richardson last year earned $32,000 as an institutional security specialist for the Florida Department of Children and Families. He was hired by the state in 1998 when he was 27 years old, and in the intervening years, he has aggregated charges of driving under the influence, a weapons violation, and an arrest for reckless driving, according to FDLE records. Charges were dropped in the reckless driving case. Richardson was sent into an intervention program for the DUI. The FDLE did not act regarding the weapons violation, instead deferring to an internal Department of Corrections sanction of Richardson.

Those same rights also extend to badge-wearing conservation officers, some of whom have no street patrol experience but plenty of access to serious weapons.

Jeffrey Sidor, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission since 1990, was charged in early 2012 with petty theft for working hours on an outside job while also collecting his state salary. Charges were dropped by the State Attorney's Office. Then, in July 2012, Sidor left his patrol boat with the keys in the ignition and an M249 fully automatic machine gun with ammunition there for the taking. An internal investigation also found that the boat's automated identification system onboard was three degrees off, "which would result in an incorrect bearing if used during a rescue," according to state documents.

When the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission considered those charges, though, it found that "despite the seriousness of these violations and his negligence as captain, these charges are agency policy violations only; therefore, staff recommends finding no cause and closing this case." Sidor kept his license and was paid $50,504 last year, state records show.

As glaring as these cases are, there's reason to believe the commission is only becoming less effective. As the number of law enforcement and corrections officers in Florida has remained relatively static at 83,000 in the past four years, the number of probable-cause cases presented to the commission has dropped this year to an average of 38 per month from 56 per month in fiscal year 2011-12, a 57 percent decrease.

Why this dramatic dip in cases? That's a question no one wants to answer.

"It's not up to us; it's up to the [FDLE]," says Bill Harriss, a former city manager in St. Augustine and a Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission member since 2013. "We're like a judge in that we only get to see the cases once the FDLE determines there is probable cause."

The FDLE, for its part, says it's up to the individual agencies to send it cases to review. "We can't speculate on why this would be, because what we get to review is from the individual agencies," FDLE spokeswoman Molly Best says. "If they don't have anything for us to review, then, well, you'd have to contact the agencies."

Stoughton, the university expert and former cop, says one explanation might be the growing power of police unions, which could be discouraging departments from sending complaints to the FDLE. With a public ever more attuned to police abuse, there's added pressure to keep complaints out of the sunshine.

"It could be that officers and their agencies are circling the wagons," Stoughton says. "Even if they aren't explicitly intending to, they may not be forwarding complaints to the FDLE, as there is an increased need to feel more protective."

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