Sunday, April 22, 2018
Public safety

Amid 'unprecedented' police sex scandal, Lakeland tries to move forward

Lakeland residents call it the scandal. State investigators allege "serious shortcomings" and "moral bankruptcy." A New York newspaper headline proclaimed: They're Florida's horniest!

The city 35 miles east of Tampa was cast under a lurid national spotlight recently after a state report revealed up to 10 police officers had sex with a female crime analyst over the past seven years.

The on-and-off duty philandering happened in patrol cars, public offices, a church building and a cemetery.

One sex act occurred in a parking lot after a slain officer's funeral, according to the June 25 report by State Attorney Jerry Hill.

On social media, people nationwide are mocking what the New York Daily News dubbed "Perv PD."

But the tone is less jovial in Lakeland. Hill wrote in his report that some of the sex acts might not have been consensual, while the crime analyst at the center of the scandal has gone public with a dark story of abuse.

"Had these members of your department been more focused on the important responsibilities of law enforcement, rather than pursuing sexual encounters with a civilian analyst, the LPD might not be in the condition it is today," Hill wrote to police Chief Lisa Womack

Thus far, as the Lakeland Police Department conducts an internal investigation, one officer has resigned, one has retired and others have been placed on administrative leave or taken off law enforcement duties, Sgt. Gary Gross said.

The analyst, 37-year-old Sue Eberle, now on paid leave, hired a Palm Harbor labor lawyer who claims she was repeatedly victimized in a toxic workplace.

That's on top of surveillance video released in June showing a Lakeland officer telling a woman to lift her shirt and shake out her bra during a traffic stop.

Lakeland — home of Publix, the Detroit Tigers spring training and perhaps the world's largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in one place — hasn't faced such infamy in memory, Mayor Gow Fields said.

Some residents now struggle to trust the department, which has about 225 sworn officers. Others have requested that Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd be brought in to fix a broken culture.

"In the short term, it's extremely embarrassing," Fields said. "In the long term, the real test is: What did we do about it? We can't unring this bell, but we can demonstrate some organizational maturity and do the right thing."

Fields said Womack took appropriate action by summoning the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

At a recent City Commission meeting, Womack — who became chief two years ago — said the police force is committed to restoring the community's trust.

"I am appalled by those who chose to engage in this behavior, and I am equally appalled by those who knew about it and didn't come forward," Womack said. "This particular event, this particular scandal — whatever you want to call it — is not reflective of the entire Lakeland Police Department. But we all feel embarrassed by it.

"Those who have dishonored the Lakeland Police Department badge and uniform will no longer be Lakeland police officers."

Some community leaders say the internal investigation — as well as a complete standards and cultural overhaul — should be passed to outside help.

"We're in uncharted waters here," said City Commissioner Howard Wiggs. "This is an unprecedented crisis. Folks are saddened. They are frustrated. Angry. The credibility of the department has been repeatedly damaged."

Pastor Jay Dennis of Lakeland's First Baptist Church at the Mall said he has prayed for the police with church members.

"There is a gamut of emotions, but sadness prevails," Dennis said. "One thing scripture teaches is: Expose things to the light. Let there be no secrets. As painful as that is, I believe the light needs to be shown in this situation."

Eberle, a married mother of two teen boys, told investigators she had been sexually abused as a child and had previously attempted suicide. She feared saying "no" to men, the report stated, and felt she could not ward off sexual advances, especially from ranking officers.

Eberle's statements have "time and time again" been corroborated by the state's investigation, Hill wrote. She told investigators two officers raped her. (That can't be proven now, he wrote, and no criminal charges have been filed.) Some initiated sex with her on-duty. Some, she said, asked for naked pictures. One sent her photos of himself in women's underwear.

Lakeland police victim advocate Jackie Suggs told investigators that, four or five years ago, Eberle told her she'd been raped by an officer. Suggs said she did not report it because Eberle is a "grown woman."

The officers named in Hill's report are Capt. John Thomason (who retired Tuesday), Lt. Al Wilson, Sgt. Russell Longaberger, Sgt. Bryan McNabb, Sgt. David Woolverton, Officer Rick Gries, former officer Rawn Haynes, Officer Scott Hutton, former officer Steve Sherman (who resigned in January) and Officer George Vidal. Officer Loretta Jackson also knew about inappropriate work behavior and Eberle's allegations of rape, Hill wrote, but failed to tell anyone.

Fire inspector and reserve Lakeland police officer David Bivens admitted to having sex with Eberle in her car in a parking lot after the funeral of Officer Arnulfo Crispin, who was shot and killed on duty in 2011.

At a news conference last week, labor lawyer David Linesch, hired by Eberle, read a letter he wrote to the Lakeland mayor and city attorney:

"Our investigation reveals an exceptional, if not historic case, of sexual harassment, coercion and assault, resulting in a work environment that was sexually toxic and resulted in extreme harm to my clients."

They have filed sexual harassment claims against the department at the state and federal levels, Linesch said. Eberle and her husband, Ed, sat quietly as he spoke, holding hands.

"It has brought them together," Linesch said. "They are trying to salvage their marriage and family."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Danielle Paquette can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224.

     
   
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