A bill heading to Gov. Charlie Crist would make it harder for cities and counties to get rid of bad police officers. Those officers who mistreat the public, abuse their position or lie to their superiors would have an easier time talking their way out of trouble and an almost unfettered ability to squash any attempt to discipline them. The state's sheriffs and police chiefs are so concerned about the taint this would bring to the overwhelming majority of good law enforcement officers that they are asking the governor to veto the bill. He should heed their advice.
Law enforcement officers in Florida who are the subject of an internal investigation already enjoy some of the most liberal rights in the country. Before an officer may even be questioned, he or she is told the nature of the investigation, given the names of all complainants and provided with all witness statements. Imagine the average citizen having the same opportunity to line up his story or alibi. But SB 624, by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, goes another step by providing the officer with "all" evidence, including incident reports, GPS locator information and audio or video compiled by investigators.
If this legislation were in response to an officer being unfairly treated by the current system, that would be one thing. But it comes in the wake of four Tampa police officers being fired or forced to resign in December after investigators using GPS technology found they had gone home or to other jobs during the time they were supposed to be on duty.
The bill also makes it easy for bad officers to avoid punishment by tying up the disciplinary process. Officers who feel unfairly treated by investigators could request an internal review. Then the games start. Officers could bounce an investigator off the case, delay the proceedings and effectively shop for lenient colleagues to rule on their case. This would gut the ability of internal affairs investigators to do their jobs and make internal affairs a dead-end career move.
Police chiefs and sheriffs understand that their ability to self-police the ranks is the only defense against any public call for citizen review panels. This legislation would move Florida away from the great strides it has taken in professionalizing the police forces. No wonder, then, that the Florida Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Associations object to the bill. "This is a bad law that helps bad cops," Tampa police Chief Stephen Hogue wrote the governor last week. The only Tampa Bay area legislators who opposed the bill, Republican Sens. Dennis Jones of Seminole and Ronda Storms of Valrico, deserve credit for seeing the serious drawbacks in this bad legislation. The governor should veto it.