A day after the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office announced that any employee charged with drunken driving would be fired, police union officials said they would be monitoring the new policy as DUI cases emerge.
Michael Krohn, executive director of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, said Tuesday that the union, which represents about 500 of the Sheriff's Office's roughly 2,700 employees, understands the need for the stricter policy.
"To come to work to lose your job is definitely a harsh enforcement. But we also understand they are in the career of enforcing the law, not breaking the law," Krohn said. "The sheriff tries his best to be fair."
Nonetheless, the union will be keeping watch of the policy and its application to new DUI cases, Krohn said. As of Tuesday, he had not heard of any concerns from union members about the new rule.
"There could be some potential gray areas that could develop," he added.
On Monday, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sent an email to all employees to announce that anyone within the agency driving with a blood-alcohol level above the state's 0.08 limit, or convicted of a DUI in a criminal proceeding, would be fired.
If the employee doesn't resign, internal affairs will swiftly begin an inquiry that will conclude within a few days. Deputies under investigation will be barred from working on the streets.
The discipline in each case: termination.
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 amid a recent rash of drunken driving arrests among Sheriff's Office employees, including a 19-year veteran, Gualtieri opted for a more severe discipline.
He is not the first sheriff within Tampa Bay to implement a similar, strict policy. Upon taking office in 2004, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee ordered that any employee charged with a DUI immediately be suspended without pay and, regardless of a conviction, be terminated, or given the opportunity to resign or retire after due process.
"He expects a higher standard of his deputies and because of that, he's going to have zero tolerance," said Larry McKinnon, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokesman. "It's a choice that you make. It just symbolizes your decision-making abilities to consciously get in a car and drive home after you've been out drinking to the point that you're impaired."
Other law enforcement agencies within Tampa Bay, including the Clearwater Police Department and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, don't have specific DUI policies but discipline employees on a case-by-case basis.
The same goes for St. Petersburg police, said spokesman Bill Proffitt, adding that investigators look at a number of factors.
"Was there a crash involved? Any other degree of damage and injury involved?" he said. "Was the officer remorseful? There's a whole list of things that would be taken into consideration."
At the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, spokeswoman Denise Moloney said internal affairs investigations into DUI arrests are not launched until the criminal case is closed, during which time employees are typically placed on administrative leave.
Termination, Moloney added, is "always a viable, if not likely, option."
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727)445-4157.