Gov. Charlie Crist was quick to intervene after Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors cleared a St. Petersburg police officer in the shooting death of a black teenager this summer. Crist said he wanted to clear the air in the racially charged case. He should be equally interested in a much more troubling case that smells rotten. The circumstances surrounding the death of Miles White, a 16-year-old who was killed in 2002 after a high-speed car chase by a Polk County sheriff's deputy, bear further scrutiny. White's family and the public deserve to know whether the deputy caused the crash and whether the Sheriff's Office covered up for him.
A story Sunday by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Meg Laughlin raises serious questions about the culpability of Sgt. Scott Lawson. An 11-year Sheriff's Office veteran with a reputation as an "adrenaline junkie," Lawson had been itching for action that night, fellow law enforcement officers later said, when he pulled his unmarked Crown Victoria behind a Volkswagen Passat.
In the Passat were White and Adam Jacoby, the 18-year-old driver, who had alcohol in his system. They had just left a yard party in Winter Haven about 2 a.m. Lawson gave chase, tearing around corners and running stop signs. He never turned on his police lights or siren. Dispatch informed him the car was not stolen. A local police officer who joined the chase could not keep up because Lawson was going about 120 mph. At 2:59 a.m., he radioed to dispatch: "Oops!" Then, silence. He then reported the Passat crashed "as I was turning around," adding: "Oh, I was not 10-31 (in pursuit)." He had chased the Passat for 15.8 miles at speeds averaging 105 mph.
The Sheriff's Office should have carefully investigated the involvement of one of its officers in a deadly accident. But the office mishandled the case from the start. Lawson asked a cop buddy on the scene to call another cop buddy to come take his Crown Victoria. The car was gone before accident investigators arrived. The car, which witnesses described as being a "dark bluish gray," disappeared for five days; investigators were finally given access to a dark green car they were told was Lawson's. The deputy filed an array of lies in his report. Among them: that dispatch told him the Passat was stolen, that he never was in pursuit and that he never drove faster than 70 mph. Investigators were also told not to interview him.
Ultimately, the Sheriff's Office blamed Jacoby for the accident but found Lawson had violated policy by breaking traffic laws and not identifying himself as an officer. Lawson was not disciplined because he resigned in the interim. A week after the accident, he was arrested on more than a dozen felony counts after men aged 16 to 28 said Lawson had given them anal probes and genital exams. A Polk detective testified that Lawson made "contact and exercised the giving of physicals while in uniform and using a department vehicle." But the detective stopped investigating any link between the sex crimes and the chase that ended in White's death. His superiors maintained there was no connection.
The governor should appoint an outside investigator to explore at least three questions:
• Did Lawson cause the accident? A traffic crash investigator urged a more thorough examination of the Passat's under bumper, but nothing in the public record shows that the Sheriff's Office complied. The Sheriff's Ooffice refused a request by the Times to inspect and photograph the wrecked Passat, which police still are holding.
• Why did the Sheriff's Office allow Lawson to frustrate a full investigation initially?
• Why does the Sheriff's Office continue to block the effort to air the facts? It shows more appetite for attacking anyone who asks questions about the case than in coming clean on what looks, at the very least, to be suspect police work.
Only an independent investigator can bring about the accountability this case cries out for and has always lacked. If the governor really has an interest in reviewing high-profile, controversial local police work, this one certainly demands another look from someone outside the Polk Sheriff's Office.