Monday, July 23, 2018
Public safety

Accused of repeated violence, a Clearwater police sergeant is allowed to retire on his terms

CLEARWATER — A battery arrest in October marked the third time over his 25-year career that former police Sgt. John Brown was accused of violence against women.

Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter stripped his rank and demoted him to officer. But Brown challenged it, filing a grievance through the union.

Now the case has concluded, with Brown and the city agreeing on a resolution proposed by the officer: Brown, 48, would regain his rank of sergeant as long as he retired immediately. He left June 8 in good standing, with a monthly $4,583 pension payment and about $16,600 in sick leave, holiday and vacation time payouts.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:Clearwater police sergeant arrested on battery charge

Prosecutors didn’t pursue Brown’s Oct. 4 arrest, sparked by an accusation from his ex-girlfriend that he shoved her to the ground during an argument. Alexis Upton, supervisor of the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney’s Office domestic violence unit, said the stories from each party conflicted and there was "insufficient evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt."

But inner-department investigations operate on a different standard of more likely than not. Slaughter, in a January memo to Brown and his Fraternal Order of Police representative, drew on the former sergeant’s two prior accusations to draw this conclusion:

"The incidents are similar enough in nature to establish a pattern of behavior that lends credibility to (Brown’s ex-girlfriend)," he wrote.

"When you have a situation that’s kind of a he-said, she-said situation, and I have basically two other situations that are similar in nature, I felt that put me in a position that I could not immediately discredit (Brown’s ex-girlfriend)," Slaughter told the Tampa Bay Times.

He also noted that Brown had other disciplinary issues since his promotion to sergeant in 2014, including a one-day suspension.

Brown, who was hired at the department in October 1993, declined to comment but denied the allegations to internal investigators. His union representative, Paul Noeske, emphasized that Brown was never charged criminally, and that his departure from the department was his choice.

"He was not at risk of losing his job," Noeske said. "I have respect for Chief Slaughter. He would not have retained him if he did not believe he should be a police officer."

Police and internal records document the accusations against Brown in 2003, 2008 and last year. The first led in part to Brown’s termination, although he was rehired through a last-ditch appeal process known as arbitration. The Times is not identifying the women due to the nature of the allegations.

In the most recent case, Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies responded to Brown’s home near Clearwater to find his on-again, off-again girlfriend "visibly shaken and scared," according to the report. The story starts the same way for both parties: The woman stopped by to pick up her possessions, which Brown had left on his kitchen counter.

According to the woman, who could not be reached for comment, not everything was there, so she went to talk to him. Brown asked her to leave. When she refused, he pretended to call police. The woman then went into his bathroom to find the rest of her belongings.

Here is where the stories diverge: The woman told investigators Brown "forcefully" grabbed her shoulders and pushed her to the ground. Brown said he stuck out his arm to block her from slamming a cabinet door shut, worried that it would wake his teenage son sleeping in the house.

The woman called 911. Deputies eventually arrested Brown on a simple battery dating violence charge. Prosecutors dropped it in January.

While there were no witnesses to the exchange, the woman had an audio recording on her phone that supposedly caught part of the argument. However, she deleted it before they could listen.

In another incident, about a decade ago, another woman with a hurt ankle, hip and hand told a doctor that Brown had thrown her to the ground at his apartment, according to internal affairs documents. The doctor told police.

The woman, identified as Brown’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of one of his children, gave a statement to Pinellas deputies matching the doctor’s account, adding the argument started when she went to his place to check on her son after being unable to get Brown on the phone, records say. He reported her to police for trespassing.

Brown denied the allegations, saying she walked into his hand after he raised it to block her from walking further into the apartment. The woman recanted her statement a few days later, saying instead she had tripped. She reported it as a domestic battery, she told investigators, because she was afraid authorities were looking for her because of Brown’s trespassing call.

Deputies closed the case. So did Clearwater police internal investigators, deeming it "administratively unfounded."

In the third case, from 15 years ago, two drivers called police to report that a man who turned out to be Brown had forced a woman into his car on the side of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

The woman initially told police the argument was only verbal. Later, while internal investigators were looking into the case, she testified that Brown had lunged toward her and grabbed her arms. She gave up and got in the car with him.

As they were driving away, Brown coached her on what to do if they were stopped by police, she said, telling her to say it was only verbal and to stop crying and smile. She didn’t want to get him trouble, she said, so she went along with it.

Brown denied the allegations. He said he put a hand on her arm to calm her down and that they struggled over her purse because his garage door opener was inside.

Still, that incident, and three other instances of misconduct by Brown, led to his firing in 2005. He challenged it, and an arbitrator eventually reversed the termination, handing out suspensions instead.

Despite the checkered history, Slaughter pointed out that Brown had many high points in his career, which led him to promote Brown to sergeant in charge of a patrol team from Keene Road to Clearwater Bay. His personnel file shows many exemplary reviews and letters of commendation. He had also served for several years as commander of the department’s Honor Guard.

"The guy has done some really good things here," Slaughter said, "but sometimes those outside influences could impact your career."

Senior staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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