Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Monday that the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has modified its DUI policy with a stricter penalty for employees charged with drunken driving: They will be fired.
In the past, the range of discipline for a Sheriff's Office employee charged with a DUI ranged from a seven-day suspension to termination.
But in an email Gualtieri sent to all Sheriff's Office employees Monday, the sheriff explains the agency's new policy: employees driving with a blood alcohol level above the state's 0.08 limit will be terminated. The same goes for employees convicted of a DUI in a criminal proceeding.
"If you make that decision, you're not going to work here anymore," Gualtieri said Monday after sending the mass email announcing the policy change. "People die from this and we can't have sheriff's deputies or members of the Sheriff's Office blatantly make that decision and put people in harm's way."
It is the first time in recent memory that such a policy has been implemented within the Sheriff's Office, Gualtieri said.
The new changes will not affect employees previously charged with DUIs.
In his email to Sheriff's Office employees, the sheriff writes that law enforcement members should be an "example" to the community.
"I also do not want to be the one knocking on the door of someone's home at 2 a.m. telling them that their loved one was killed by a DUI driver," the sheriff wrote, "especially one that works for PCSO."
The policy changes were triggered by some recent DUI arrests within the Sheriff's Office.
"The stakes need to be higher because the stakes aren't high enough," he said.
About a month ago, a probationary deputy was arrested on a DUI charge after he left the Green Iguana Bar & Grill in Tampa, got into his car, backed into another vehicle in the parking lot, and showed his badge, telling other bar patrons he was a deputy.
"It wasn't just a straight DUI. It was a DUI accident, he was obnoxious and the DUI was at 2 or 3 in the morning," Gualtieri said. The deputy was due to start his shift at 7 a.m.
About five months ago, a deputy recruit was also charged with DUI. Gualtieri terminated both deputies.
The most recent DUI arrest was in October in Tampa, when Cpl. Chester Wolcott Johnson, 43, a 19-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office, was driving northbound in the southbound lanes of Armenia Avenue near Interstate 275 about 2 a.m. when he hit another car, Tampa police said. The other driver was hospitalized with minor injuries. Johnson's blood alcohol level measured 0.20, jail records show.
Internal affairs investigators are investigating Johnson's DUI arrest.
"You've got to draw the line," Gualtieri said. "I feel like I've got to do something to make sure our people are not making those bad decisions."
Contact Laura C. Morel at email@example.com or (727)445-4157.