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Editorial: Discipline of officers shouldn't wait

Tampa police responded to an internal scandal last week by announcing the department would disband its stand-alone DUI squad. That's a good idea. Folding these officers within a larger, unified command will make them more effective and accountable. But the move does nothing to discipline two DUI officers for their role in setting up an arrest. The department is buying time when it should be restoring public faith by dealing with these officers' misconduct.

Police Chief Jane Castor said the special unit's members will be spread out among the department's three patrol districts, which divide the city into geographic areas. While the department toyed with the idea for years, Castor said the January arrest of Tampa lawyer Philip Campbell reinforced the need for the change. A special prosecutor's report released last week alleged that two Tampa officers, Sgt. Ray Fernandez, who oversaw the DUI squad, and Timothy McGinnis, an officer assigned to the squad, worked in concert with a rival law firm to set up Campbell's arrest. That is certainly enough to reorganize the DUI unit. It's also enough to begin disciplinary proceedings.

Fernandez needs to answer why he targeted Campbell after being tipped off that he was drinking by a "close, personal" friend who was an attorney at the rival law firm, Adams & Diaco. He exchanged 92 texts with this attorney in the hours leading up to and shortly after Campbell's arrest. And how did Fernandez "accidentally" erase his text messages the next day? Why did McGinnis refuse after Campbell changed his mind to allow him to take a sobriety test? That denied evidence to the state and defense and cleared the way for an arrest.

Castor said the department won't move until the FBI finishes its investigation. But that could take months, allowing memories to fade and stories to be coordinated. There's no reason that internal affairs can't conduct its own probe simultaneous to the FBI's investigation. The city's scope is narrower than any federal civil rights issue. The special prosecutor, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, said the police dash cam video showed that "Campbell does not appear impaired." He dropped the DUI charge in part because the officers' "credibility would become a significant issue." McGinnis' belligerent tone at a hearing in the case raises more questions about the legitimacy of the traffic stop.

The men and women of the police department should not be under a cloud because of the "worrisome behavior" that McCabe saw among the players in this case. Castor should not lose any more time in examining the actions of these officers.

Editorial: Discipline of officers shouldn't wait 08/02/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 2, 2013 6:33pm]
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