Sunday, January 21, 2018
Public safety

Amid tense relations with PHCC, Pasco sheriff threatens to pull out of police academy

NEW PORT RICHEY — After a series of disagreements and growing tension with the administration at Pasco-Hernando Community College, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco says he has lost faith in the college's law enforcement academy, the main recruiting ground for his agency.

"I thought there was a strong partnership between the Pasco Sheriff's Office and PHCC. ... I've realized that we are truly just customers, and we are not partners," he said last week. "That's leading me to believe that we really need to look at our options to see if we need to remain at PHCC."

Nocco did not point to any specific instance as the cause for the rift, though he did say some of the college's hiring choices were part of the fray.

In recent weeks the Tampa Bay Times investigated two PHCC instructors who continued to teach after resigning from the Sheriff's Office under investigation. Nocco said the situation has given him reason to worry about what his future recruits are learning.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office, for its part, is taking a softer approach.

"We're healing from a bad experience," said Hernando Chief Deputy Michael Maurer, speaking for Sheriff Al Nienhuis.

• • •

For Nocco, however, his agency's relationship with PHCC began to crack four years ago.

In 2009, Jeffrey Gattuso, a part-time instructor in the academy, was fired after an explicit video of a female cadet performing oral sex on him was found attached to the instructor's e-mail on a classroom computer. He was also working at the time as a sergeant at Polk Correctional Institution. PHCC fired him.

More recently, the academy employed another instructor with a spotty record as a Pasco deputy.

James Nagy was hired as an instructor at PHCC in 1991 while he was working as a patrol deputy. In his 23 years on the force, he'd been the subject of 15 internal affairs investigations.

In 2011, he was hired by the Tarpon Springs Police Department, and less than a year into his tenure he was accused of taking video of a 14-year-old girl's rear end while working security at a skating rink.

Nagy was fired the day the investigation began but kept working at the college.

"The (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) database listed separation reasons reported by other agencies that did not impact his certifications or his ability to serve as a law enforcement officer or as a law enforcement instructor," PHCC spokeswoman Lucy Miller told the Times in August.

April Heuss also worked as a Pasco deputy while teaching at the academy. She logged three sustained internal investigations with the Sheriff's Office since 2001. The last investigation, launched this year, came after an allegation of misconduct. Other deputies claimed that Heuss told them she was their "protector" and "buffer" from the platoon's lieutenant, a move the agency suggested undermined the lieutenant's authority.

Heuss severed ties with the Sheriff's Office in September with a $25,000 settlement and an agreement that the Sheriff's Office wouldn't try to stop her from working at PHCC.

Neither she nor Nagy is instructing at the college now.

Nagy was reassigned to work as a security consultant for the college after an employee in-service day that focused on campus safety in catastrophic events. He, like all part-time faculty and staff, works under a contract set to expire June 30.

"We expect that Jim Nagy's duties will be completed by that date," PHCC President Katherine Johnson, who declined multiple interview requests, said in an email. "If more work is required to ensure safety and security plans are in place, there is a potential for him to work under a new part-time contract."

Heuss, who was teaching classes in firearms and defensive tactics, is not employed with the college because her classes have been "successfully completed."

Johnson wrote that Heuss "is still considered a certified PHCC instructor and it is possible for her to be re-hired to teach in the future."

The fact that neither Nagy nor Heuss is teaching anymore is no consolation to Nocco. He takes other issues into account.

"I've had members who have been part of units out (at the PHCC east campus) who said that our needs are not the priority," he said, noting that agency members don't have as much access as he'd like to the classrooms, gun range or driving range.

Johnson refuted that claim, writing, "additional classrooms are provided when required and the PSO's Training Unit may schedule use of the Firing Range and Driving Range when needed to conduct in-service training or new employee orientation."

Johnson wrote that she was shocked by Nocco's statements.

"We feel that the working relationship between the Academy and Training Unit has been mutually beneficial to both organizations in meeting their mission," Johnson wrote. "As a member of our law enforcement advisory board, Sheriff Nocco, or his representatives, are in a position to make recommendations and bring specific issues to our attention. Other than questioning a specific employment decision, no other formal complaints or concerns have been submitted to the College for review."

• • •

Near the end of August, Johnson sent an email to several college employees, as well as Dade City Police Chief Ray Velboom, who serves on the academy's advisory committee, and FDLE representative Donna Sureth to convene an oversight committee.

The committee, she wrote, would look at ways to improve communication between the college and outside agencies. The committee would also review ways to notify the college if an instructing deputy was undergoing an internal affairs investigation and how teaching contracts with the college might change after those investigations.

Velboom said Nagy's and Heuss' investigations have been the "elephant in the room" at the committee meetings, but most of the conversations are about policy changes.

The committee has not yet finished its discussions.

Nocco's not waiting.

"As sheriff, my responsibility is to look out for the well-being of our deputies, and if I can't provide them the highest quality of training and the best opportunity for training, I need to look elsewhere," Nocco said. "And that's one of the reasons I am so adamant in the fact that we are going to be looking for other opportunities."

Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

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