Overcast76° WeatherOvercast76° Weather

Woman's shooting death spotlights bay area agencies' policies

Here's what we know.

Two off-duty law enforcement officers fired at a nude woman who authorities say confronted the officers with a firearm. The woman died at the scene.

Nine days later, the Hernando County sheriff's detective was back to his regular duties.

The other, a Tampa police officer, is still on desk duty. It could be weeks before he's back on the streets.

Why?

The Oct. 20 shooting of 42-year-old Inga Marie Swanson by the off-duty officers highlights the disparate ways Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies handle cases when one of their own makes a life-or-death decision.

Why do some departments allow officers who have killed someone to return to regular duty so quickly? Why do other agencies bench officers involved in nonlethal shootings for a much longer period of time?

Each shooting incident is different, of course. But so, too, are the policies that law enforcement agencies rely on when an officer pulls the trigger.

Swanson's death last month was a stark example of that. Some agencies wait until all of the investigations into a shooting incident are finished before returning an officer to duty. Others, including Hernando County, leave it up to the sheriff to decide.

Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis determined that property Detective Rocky Howard could return to duty before the Florida Department of Law Enforcement finished its investigation into whether Howard and Tampa Police Officer William Mechler acted lawfully.

Both officers fired weapons, but the FDLE has released few other details, including which of the men, if not both, hit Swanson.

Howard, who spends some of his time in the office, but also works in the field interviewing witnesses and suspects, returned to his regular post on Monday. Meanwhile, Mechler remains on desk duty.

The FDLE investigation is expected to take about two more weeks.

• • •

Both Howard, 31, and Mechler, 26, were attending a gathering of a couple families at 9070 Orchard Way in Spring Hill that Saturday.

At some point, Swanson, who lived nearby, approached, naked and acting irrationally, before leaving the group, according to the Sheriff's Office. Someone from the group called for on-duty assistance, Nienhuis said.

Before deputies arrived, however, Swanson returned with a firearm and confronted Howard and Mechler, prompting them both to shoot. Her boyfriend, David Simpson, said the weapon was an antique and not loaded.

In Hernando, the sheriff and the FDLE's special agent in charge, along with members of the department's investigative team, meet three times within 72 hours after such an incident, said sheriff's Col. Mike Maurer, who also sits in on the meetings. The Sheriff's Office's attorney, internal affairs investigator, forensics staffers and a representative from the State Attorney's Office are also present, Maurer said.

Based on those meetings and the results of a psychological evaluation, the sheriff has the authority to return the employee back to active duty. An internal affairs investigation confirming the officer followed agency policies is completed later.

In Howard's case, Nienhuis said he was "relatively confident" the day of the shooting that Howard had acted lawfully. By the end of the 72-hour period, Nienhuis said, he was ready to return Howard to regular duty, with a psychologist's approval.

It makes sense in such cases to have the officer back on the job, being productive, rather than waiting for the official investigation to end, Nienhuis said.

"Based on everything we've seen, they acted reasonably," he said. "And here's a guy who's solving a lot of cases, so why would I take that away from the citizens?"

• • •

The Tampa Police Department has a different policy.

Before Mechler can return from administrative duty, the FDLE must complete its investigation. An internal investigation follows to determine that the officer followed the agency's policies. That investigation does not begin until the department receives a letter from the State Attorney's Office.

"Once all of that is finished, the officer goes back to full duty," spokeswoman Laura McElroy wrote in an email.

The time frame when an officer returns to patrol varies greatly with each case, depending on the investigation, McElroy noted.

The St. Petersburg Police Department has a policy similar to Tampa's. An officer may not return to normal duty until a chain-of-command board, including Police Chief Chuck Harmon, determines that the officer was justified in his actions, said spokesman Mike Puetz.

Like Tampa, each case varies greatly in how long it takes. As a loose rule, Puetz said, an officer might be out for two or three months.

Sometimes it takes longer.

St. Petersburg police Sgt. Karl Lounge remained on administrative duty for more than five months after he shot an ax-wielding armed robbery suspect on April 29. Lounge was helping fellow Officer Christopher Allen, who was trying to arrest 27-year-old Anthony J. Stahley. Allen fell to his knees. Stahley was standing over him, holding an ax.

Lounge pulled up in his patrol cruiser and slammed into Stahley, knocking him onto the hood. He got back up and was still holding the ax. After Stahley refused to drop it, Lounge fired five times, hitting the man multiple times. Stahley survived.

At the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, an internal review team must complete an investigation and the State Attorney's Office must clear the use of deadly force before an employee can return to regular duty, said spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

The Pasco Sheriff's Office also requires an official letter from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office before an officer can return to regular duty, said spokesman Kevin Doll.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office does not require the letter, said spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda. The agency's internal investigators, among others, make a recommendation to the sheriff, who decides whether to return the employee to active duty.

Nienhuis, who served for a decade as second-in-command at the Pasco Sheriff's Office, points out that the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office conducts an investigation, interviewing witnesses to determine whether a shooting is lawful. The notification, Nienhuis said, tended to come much sooner than it does in the 5th Circuit, which includes Hernando and Citrus counties, and where State Attorney Brad King's office makes its determination after reviewing the FDLE's report.

Take, for instance, a Feb. 23 shooting in Citrus County, where the Sheriff's Office policy closely mirrors Hernando's.

On the morning of Feb. 23, Deputy Laura Newton responded to a 911 hang-up call in Beverly Hills. When she pulled into the driveway, 30-year-old Nicholas Dinovo emerged from behind a van brandishing what looked like a handgun, investigators said. Dinovo ignored Newton's commands, so she fired, injuring him.

The weapon turned out to be a BB gun, but appeared virtually identical to an actual firearm, the investigation found. After the 72-hour briefing, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy felt confident Newton acted lawfully, said spokeswoman Heather Yates. Newton was cleared after a psychological evaluation and returned to patrol duty on March 3. King's letter notifying Dawsy that the shooting was lawful arrived six weeks later.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarerro@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. Reach them on Twitter @HernandoTimes.

Woman's shooting death spotlights bay area agencies' policies 11/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 3, 2012 2:03pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...