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St. Petersburg police officer's testimony exposes practice of disabling GPS trackers

ST. PETERSBURG — Officer Christopher Dixon went on trial last week on charges that he rear-ended a van with his marked St. Petersburg police cruiser, then sped off.

The trial exposed some embarrassing revelations for the St. Petersburg Police Department when Dixon testified that he disabled the tracking device on his police cruiser several times so that his superiors couldn't tell where he was or how fast he was going.

Other officers also testified that "it's no secret" how to disable the devices.

That's a violation of policy, one that could put officers at risk. If dispatchers don't know where they are, they can't send help.

"It's for their safety," police Chief Chuck Harmon said.

Any officer who breaks those rules, the chief said, could be disciplined. That goes for Dixon. Though a judge acquitted him in the hit-and-run case, he still could be punished or fired by the department.

The trial's revelations have already led to another internal inquiry. The department ordered a transcript of the trial, according to spokesman Bill Proffitt, to see what Dixon and other officers said about defeating the trackers and breaking the rules.

"We want to read the transcripts," Proffitt said, "and if the statements suggest a violation of policy, we could open an internal investigation."

The department tracks its cruisers using devices that broadcast speed and location every few seconds. It's activated every time an officer docks their laptop in the car. Department policy says it must be activated whenever an officer is driving, on or off duty.

Many law enforcement agencies across the country have similar tracking systems and policies. The sheriff's offices in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties said they all have them.

But when Dixon took the witness stand last week, he testified that he knew how to disable the system — by undocking the laptop — and did it "three or four times" in his first year as an officer.

Dixon was on trial on a misdemeanor charge of leaving the scene of an accident. He was accused of rear-ending a minivan outside Tropicana Field on July 29, 2009, with his marked police car.

Though an officer identified him and Dixon's cruiser had some damage, his vehicle's tracker showed it was in the parking lot at the time of the crash and not at the accident scene.

Though he was acquitted, Dixon is still the subject of an internal investigation of that traffic case. The department will review his sworn testimony that he broke the rules by disabling his vehicle's tracing device.

Dixon testified that he once raced to the scene of a shooting, but disabled the tracking device to hide how fast he was driving.

The department allows officers driving to an emergency to exceed the speed limit by up to 25 mph, but only 15 mph through red lights and stop signs. That wasn't fast enough for Dixon, he testified.

"I felt that I needed to respond quickly," Dixon said.

The investigators in the 2009 crash, Officers Scott Blanchette and Mike Jockers, both said in depositions that disabling the tracking devices was common knowledge in the department.

"All police officers knew that there was a way to defeat the GPS," Jockers said. "The department would have liked it to have been a secret, but no."

In fact, the investigators discovered that if an officer turned the device back on while they were parked in the same spot where they had turned it off, the device would show the car had never moved.

"It is possible for Dixon to have shown his car sitting at that parking lot," Blanchette said, without him "actually being there."

But does that mean other St. Petersburg officers are also disabling their tracking devices? Detective Mark Marland, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, said he doubts it.

"If you call for help and you're unable to give your location, they can look at the screen and see exactly where you are," he said. "An officer would have no reason to haphazardly disconnect it."

Dixon, 26, has been on the force for two years. He's received good reviews and praise there, and the feeling is mutual.

"I love this department," he wrote in his 2009 evaluation.

But the department's burden of proof is less than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for guilt in a court of law. If a police review board decides there's enough evidence to show that Dixon was involved in the crash, he could face discipline or be fired.

Dixon's lawyer could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The police chief said he hasn't reviewed any materials in Dixon's case and doesn't want to "prejudge" the officer. But there's one standard, Harmon said, that every officer must meet.

"At the end of the day, if they don't come clean and tell the truth," the chief said, "they won't have a job here."

St. Petersburg police officer's testimony exposes practice of disabling GPS trackers 12/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 23, 2010 7:51am]
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