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Widows of Tampa police officers sue Jacksonville Sheriff's Office

TAMPA — The negligence of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office "substantially contributed" to the deaths of two Tampa police officers, a lawsuit filed Wednesday states.

The widows of slain Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis filed a wrongful death suit against Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford for damages in excess of $15,000.

But they don't want his money, said their attorney, Christopher Jayson. The widows want Rutherford to make policy changes so that other officers won't be put in harm's way, he said.

The issue goes back to 2009, before Dontae Morris was released from prison.

A Jacksonville Sheriff's Office employee noticed three outstanding bad check warrants for Morris. But it was a case of mistaken identity, and she decided not to place a detainer on him.

However, she didn't remove the warrants.

When Curtis pulled Morris over on June 29, 2010, he saw one of the outstanding warrants and called for backup, police say. As he and Kocab tried to take Morris into custody, police say, Morris shot them.

In a statement released about two weeks after the shootings, Jacksonville Undersheriff Frank Mackesy said the agency had investigated the issue. He conceded no wrongdoing and instead commended the clerk for noticing that the warrants had no value.

The employee "acted within police guidelines," he wrote.

However, such a guideline "creates a foreseeable zone of risk for all law enforcement officers within the state," the lawsuit says.

Widows Sara Kocab and Kelly Curtis want Rutherford to enact a policy requiring all Sheriff's Office employees to remove invalid warrants from the statewide database.

Jayson drafted a settlement agreement in which the widows promised not to sue if the Sheriff's Office made those policy changes. They asked that the new procedures be known as the "Curtis/Kocab Policies," in honor of their husbands.

But they never heard back from the sheriff — not until this week, when a city attorney sent a letter essentially acknowledging they had received Jayson's correspondence, Jayson said.

That wasn't enough.

Jayson filed the complaint Wednesday — just two days before the deadline. Wrongful death suits must be filed within two years of a person's death. The deadline is Friday.

A city of Jacksonville attorney representing the Sheriff's Office told the Tampa Bay Times last week that he wouldn't say whether the agency had made any policy changes.

That attorney, Howard Maltz, said only that the "undeniably tragic event is not the fault of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office but the fault of a criminal who hopefully will face justice soon."

Jayson said it's true that Morris was the one to pull the trigger.

"But we believe the invalid warrant in the system contributed to that occurring," he said. "It was the whole reason they were pulling him out of the car."

Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Widows of Tampa police officers sue Jacksonville Sheriff's Office 06/27/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 9:51pm]
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