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Officers take long trip from charges to firing

TAMPA — A Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy was arrested Saturday after authorities said he used his Taser on his wife.

But he didn't immediately lose his job.

The lag between criminal charges and firings can be months when it comes to law enforcement and correctional officers accused of crimes.

State law protects their jobs with a formal statement of rights, which ensures employers investigate claims fairly before taking disciplinary action. Internal investigations at most law enforcement agencies take months and usually don't wrap up until separate criminal investigations are complete.

"It's not something that's going to be done in just a few days," Hillsborough sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said of the internal investigation into Deputy Carlos Tanner.

He faces charges of domestic violence battery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after sheriff's officials said he shocked his wife with a Taser and threatened her with his gun. He has been placed on administrative leave without pay.

St. Petersburg police would wait for a criminal investigation to conclude before ending an internal one, spokesman Bill Proffitt said.

"Whenever there are criminal allegations, typically our agency investigates the criminal allegations first and the internal affairs investigations may begin at the same time, but it goes slower than the criminal investigation and can't really finish until the criminal investigation is complete," Proffitt said.

But in Hillsborough, both the Sheriff's Office and Tampa police can move forward with an internal affairs investigation and fire someone before a criminal investigation is over. It's rare, officials at both agencies said, and used when overwhelming evidence presents itself or when a criminal investigation is languishing. It can also happen when internal policies have been violated but no crime occurred.

Firing officers before criminal investigations conclude can be a political move to stave off public outrage, said Matt Puckett, deputy executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

But it's a move police unions such as Puckett's fight vigorously.

His group represents 170 agencies. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is not among them.

If a law enforcement agency fires someone who is later exonerated, the agency could be forced by an arbitrator or judge to rehire the employee with back pay. The agency could also face a lawsuit — not to mention public embarrassment, according to law enforcement and police union officials.

That's why Puckett said it makes sense for agencies to wait for a criminal case to end before moving forward with recommendations from an internal investigation.

"If the evidence is overwhelming," he said, "then you can go through the process and the termination is going to happen anyway."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Officers take long trip from charges to firing 07/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2008 7:10pm]
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