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Former lieutenant, primary foe questions sheriff's success

NEW PORT RICHEY — Challenger Robert Sullivan has been Sheriff Bob White's biggest critic on the campaign trail.

But even Sullivan, a retired sheriff's lieutenant, said he was impressed with the percentage of cases the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said it has cleared so far this year: 31.9 percent of crimes, including murder, rape and burglary. The state average in 2007 was 22.7 percent.

But after looking at some of the agency's own crime reports, Sullivan said he's no longer impressed.

His latest broadside against the sheriff is that the agency is artificially inflating the clearance rate — and lowering Pasco County's crime rate — during an election year.

"I'm not prepared to say that the sheriff is aware that this fraudulent activity is going on," Sullivan said. "But he's the chief law enforcement officer. He's responsible for the numbers he's reporting.

"He's applauding himself for a 32 percent clearance rate and my stance is that clearance rate is fraudulent."

Sullivan said the election has led to "top-down pressure" on sheriff's detectives to "make the numbers look good."

Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the agency has not intentionally inflated the clearance rate, nor has it pressured deputies to do so.

"The sheriff's not aware of any such top-down pressure," Doll said. "I would say that is patently false."

But Doll acknowledged Sullivan's complaint prompted the Sheriff's Office to review how it classifies unsolved cases, which affects the clearance rate.

The review isn't done, Doll said, but the agency has determined some should be reclassified.

"We estimate our clearance rate will change by a tenth of a percent," he said. "That's not significant."

• • •

The clearance rate goes up when a crime is solved and an arrest is made.

It goes down when there's evidence a crime occurred but not enough to make an arrest. The unsolved crime is supposed to be classified as "inactive" — waiting for new evidence.

But there's another way to lower the clearance rate: decide a crime never occurred in the first place.

In the parlance of law enforcement, that case is called "unfounded" — there's no evidence a crime took place.

Sullivan's accusation is that the Sheriff's Office is improperly classifying "inactive" cases as "unfounded." He said the agency is making unsolved crimes disappear by declaring they never happened.

Sullivan wrote a letter Monday to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which collects crime data from across the state, asking it to investigate "widespread and systematic inaccuracies" in the data the Sheriff's Office is reporting.

Sullivan submitted 28 reports of "inactive" cases he said were improperly classified as "unfounded" under the Uniform Crime Reporting guidelines.

But an FDLE spokeswoman said that, since reporting the data is voluntary, it's unclear what the state would do with such a complaint.

• • •

Sullivan shared those 28 reports with the St. Petersburg Times. In many reports, deputies had scant or no physical evidence and uncooperative victims.

For example, there's the 21-year-old Holiday woman who accused her ex-boyfriend of strong-arm robbery, domestic battery and false imprisonment. But after she got her purse back, she refused to cooperate.

"At this time I have no evidence nor leads to confirm a crime occurred," a detective wrote, "the victim refused to cooperate with further investigation."

Doll pointed out that, to his knowledge, none of these victims have complained about the way deputies handled their cases. He also said some "inactive" cases may have been mistakenly classified as "unfounded."

But some "unfounded" cases do raise eyebrows.

There's the burglary of an unoccupied Zephyrhills home that left a window pried open and a couch inside turned over. The detective called it "unfounded."

But an internal sheriff's memo provided by Sullivan noted that "when entry is made into a dwelling with the intent to commit a theft, we must still report this as a burglary."

And in one instance, the stabbing of a 57-year-old New Port Richey man was declared "unfounded" — even though an officer saw the knife sticking out of him.

The victim told deputies he had been drinking and didn't see who stabbed him. Still, deputies had the knife collected as evidence at the hospital.

But a detective classified the case as "unfounded." He wrote that due to the victim's "condition" and "inconsistencies" in his statements that "there is insufficient evidence to prove a crime at this time."

Doll said this may be one of those cases that merits another look: "Some of them might be changed to a status other than unfounded."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Former lieutenant, primary foe questions sheriff's success 08/05/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2008 6:20pm]

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