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Editorial: Clearwater officer who drove after drinking should have been tested, charged

No driver, particularly an off-duty police officer, should drive while intoxicated, and two of his experienced superiors should know it's not their job to cover for him. Clearwater Police Chief Tony Holloway should make sure that the lenient punishment the trio received in an unreported January traffic stop is not mistaken for looking the other way. Holloway changed department policy following this sorry incident, and he will need to be sure it's actually enforced.

Early on Jan. 23, several people called police to report a man so drunk he could barely walk had left a Clearwater Beach bar and drove off in a Camaro. Callers told dispatchers the car was weaving on Clearwater Memorial Causeway and nearly crashed into a taxi.

Two Clearwater police sergeants, David Young, 48, and Sean Allaster, 43, stopped the Camaro on the mainland and found at the wheel an off-duty colleague, Officer Nicholas Capogna. Capogna, 29, wasn't made to walk the line or perform other tests to determine how seriously he was impaired. Nor was he arrested.

Instead, the sergeants decided to drive him home and failed to report the incident, even to their commanding officers, who found out about it when a witness posted a comment on the Police Department's Facebook page four days later.

Last week, the department completed a three-month internal affairs investigation of the incident. Capogna was recommended for a five-day suspension. Provided the recommendation is approved by City Manager Bill Horne, he will lose one week's pay for drinking and driving and putting innocent people's lives at risk on the road. He'll also be required to receive counseling and will be subject to random drug testing.

The department command staff, consisting of the chief, deputy chief and three majors, voted 3-2 to give sergeants Young and Allaster a one-day suspension. But after Holloway reviewed the officers' files and saw that each had worked more than 20 years without any disciplinary action, he reduced the recommendation to a letter of reprimand. While a reprimand is a lesser punishment on the discipline hierarchy, it means neither officer will be eligible for a promotion or transfer for two years.

Perhaps most important is that Holloway, who said he was shocked by the sergeants' decision, is now removing officers' discretion to decide when field sobriety tests will be administered. Under the new policy, those tests must be conducted any time officers suspect a driver is intoxicated. Also, if police stop a city employee for impaired driving, they must notify the employee's department head.

Those policy changes should prevent repeats of the disappointing lack of judgment displayed by the sergeants in handling this situation — but only if Holloway ensures the changes are carried out by his department. Capogna is fortunate that the incident ended in just embarrassment for him and his department, not a drunken driving charge or worse, a loss of life.

Editorial: Clearwater officer who drove after drinking should have been tested, charged 05/07/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 5:00pm]
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