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Column: Protecting drunk police officers threatens our safety

We're lucky to have a Sheriff's Office that generally does what it's supposed to do — keep our streets as safe as possible.

Why do I say "generally"?'

Because the department seems to have one blind spot, one stain of old-fashioned cronyism never quite eradicated in this era of DNA testing and laptop-equipped patrol cars.

Deputies just don't seem to like to bust other law-enforcement types for driving drunk.

I'm referring to finance director Emily Vernon — both the 10-day delay in charging her in July and her recent mild internal rebuke.

Though Vernon, 40, has pleaded no contest to driving under the influence of alcohol, she received only a written reprimand from Sheriff Richard Nugent. No suspension. No demotion. No loss of pay.

We'll get back to her case, but first a little history. Some of it is ancient, which is partly the point: Excusing drinking and driving among Sheriff's Office employees is an old habit.

In 1991, Kenneth Shields, the son of then-Chief Deputy Don Shields, ran his department-issued pickup truck into a ditch near Istachatta. He wasn't given a field sobriety test until two hours after the crash and even then couldn't recite the alphabet. But deputies never tested his blood-alcohol level and never charged him with DUI.

This wasn't an isolated incident.

In 1999, a Times investigation revealed that no Hernando deputy had received a ticket from a fellow deputy in the previous decade.

Presumably, at least a few had been drinking and driving, and one definitely had been: In 1997, Deputy Marc Lucier crashed his patrol car into a tree and tests later revealed his blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. He was fired, but never cited.

More recently, in 2007, a deputy pulled over a Brooksville Police dispatcher and called then-Chief Ed Tincher, who sent an officer to drive him home.

Most people would probably say any driver drunk enough to need a ride home is drunk enough to deserve a blood-alcohol test. The dispatcher never underwent one.

As you can see from this case, law enforcement officers giving one another the benefit of the doubt about drinking and driving is hardly limited to our own Sheriff's Office.

"Guys not giving other guys tickets, that's something I've been fighting since I got into law enforcement in 1972,'' Nugent, who began his career in Illinois, said Friday.

This brings us back to Vernon, who, I must say, it pains me to write about. Not only is she fighting cancer, she is, according to everyone I've talked to, a fine woman and employee. This record of service, and her decision to seek substance-abuse counseling, persuaded Nugent not to fire her, as many members of the public urged him to.

Okay, then how about a suspension without pay for a week or two?

It's certainly justified by the details of the ride that — eventually — led to her DUI charge.

I don't only mean that there seemed to be plenty of evidence to charge her immediately, though I think there was. What I'm mainly talking about is the harrowing image of cars swerving off the road to avoid her vehicle.

Somebody could have easily have been killed. It was just the situation the sheriff and his deputies should never tolerate — a threat to public safety.

Column: Protecting drunk police officers threatens our safety 04/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 12:39pm]
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