TARPON SPRINGS — Police Officer John Spatz had a lapse in judgment when he entered into a sexual relationship with a teenager he met through the Police Department's ride-along program.
And, yes, he should have been disciplined in the matter.
But the seven-year Tarpon Springs officer should not have been fired.
Those were the key elements in an independent arbitrator's ruling released Wednesday.
Spatz, 34, was to return to work today as a police officer after an eight-month absence since his firing in December.
He will not receive back pay or his former rank as corporal, according to the ruling. Neither will he be reinstated to specialized units such as Honor Guard or the Emergency Response Team.
Spatz's time off in effect was a suspension without pay, the ruling said. Spatz lost about $31,000 in base salary.
Stanley H. Sergent, the Sarasota arbitrator who presided at an arbitration hearing June 10, said Spatz's misconduct was "sufficiently egregious to warrant a measure of discipline but it falls short of constituting a dischargeable offense."
The arbitrator noted that the city has no fraternization policy, therefore, an officer would not be aware of the "ramifications of such conduct."
"It was wrong that he was terminated for something that wasn't a policy," said Michael I. Krohn, the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association attorney who represented Spatz. "Yes, he is reinstated, but he has lost a lot of credibility and seniority with the department."
Still, Krohn said Spatz is "elated" with the decision.
"He has a lot of respect for Tarpon Springs and its residents," Krohn said. "He is ready to show that it was a mistake and he is going to work to redeem himself."
Despite the ruling, Tarpon Springs' acting police chief stands by the decision to fire Spatz. Capt. Robert Kochen maintains the city had a strong case and did the right thing.
"The bottom line is, we are sending the message that we are a professional agency who will not tolerate this kind of behavior," Kochen said. "We just will spell it out better."
Kochen said a fraternization policy is currently being crafted.
"We have been working on a fraternization policy with our labor attorney but we want a policy that's workable and fair and spells out some serious consequences. But even in the ruling, (Spatz' actions) was a serious misconduct."
Spatz was fired Dec. 17 for violating departmental policies regulating professional and personal conduct after his wife informed the Police Department of his affair with an 18-year-old.
Spatz initially met the teenager when she was a student at Tarpon Springs High and participating in the department's ride-along program.
Both he and the 18-year-old, admitted to meeting twice at Anderson Park, a county owned park in Tarpon Springs in September. On the first occasion, the two kissed. At the second meeting, there was "sexual contact" with the teenager, who was still a Tarpon Springs High student, he said.
In both instances, Spatz was off duty and not in his police uniform or vehicle. He made five short phone calls to the then 18-year-old from his personal cell phone while on duty, an investigation showed.
Spatz contended that the relationship was between to consenting adults and he appealed his firing.
In June, the city strengthened its procedures and oversight of the citizen ride-along program.
Under the new policy, all prospective candidates for the program will be coordinated through Lt. Barbara Templeton, an acting administrative captain in the department.
Once the person has been placed with a patrol officer, that officer will notify Templeton when the ride begins and ends.
"We are reviewing all of our policies," Kochen said.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4174.