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Laws apply to all of us, including police officers

Several weeks ago I visited a dear friend in Inverness. We drank tea, laughed and talked until the wee hours of the morning. I once lived in Inverness for almost three years, and I thought I knew a shortcut through town that would get me back to Pasco County more quickly.

As luck would have it, I made a wrong turn, got lost and ended up turning shakily out onto the highway precisely in front of the town's most notorious bar.

Fortunately, the streets were all but empty so no damage was done.

Unfortunately, the one car out that time of night belonged to an Inverness police officer. He hit his whirling blue lights and pulled me over.

Like a good citizen, I rolled the window down, placed both hands on the steering wheel and waited for the worst.

Once the officer realized I hadn't been drinking and was only lost, he chuckled at my silly turn, warned me to be more certain of my destination in the future and sent me on my way.

Whew! I was the relieved beneficiary of "officer discretion," that unwritten policy that allows a law enforcement officer to issue warnings instead of citations at his or her own discretion.

Few people would want to do away with that practice _ especially someone who has been warned instead of cited for a burned-out taillight or a less-than-three-second stop at a deserted neighborhood stop sign.

The problems come when law enforcement officers start forgiving serious infractions of the law.

It's worse when the officer forgives a friend.

And it is worst of all when the ones forgiven just happen to be fellow law enforcement officers.

Pasco County residents have seen two such instances in recent weeks. One was in Largo, where a Pasco Sheriff's deputy admitted having had a few beers before he was stopped and let go by a Largo police officer. The other was in Port Richey, where another Pasco deputy who was weaving down the highway was stopped and let go by a Port Richey police officer.

In both cases, the officer who made the stop said that if the man in the car had been just an average citizen instead of a fellow officer he wouldn't have been let off the hook.

It's too bad that there is no law against omission of duty or that the state attorney's office can't step in and prosecute officers suspected of giving their fellow officers special treatment on the side of the road. Because filing charges against suspected wrongdoers falls under "officer discretion," it is well nigh impossible to say an officer broke the law by not filing charges.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement can't even pull an officer's certification for such goings-on unless he or she is reported by someone in charge, which is happening more often, according to FDLE's Danny Quick.

To his credit, Pasco Sheriff Jim Gillum dealt as harshly as possible with the two deputies who had been pulled over. In the first case the officer, whose record was otherwise exemplary, was suspended for five days and his county car was snatched for six months. In the second instance, the deputy was fired for this and other egregious misconduct. It was about as much as Gillum could do because his officers hadn't witnessed the suspected infractions and couldn't press charges themselves.

Perhaps Gillum had learned his lesson back in 1988, when his deputies circled the wagons to protect one of their own after the deputy miscued in the middle of U.S. 19 and dumped his boat on the median. In that incident, the deputy was later determined to have been doing some serious imbibing, but he was hustled from the scene and later let off scot free because deputies bungled the investigation.

Gillum ended up on the end of an embarrassing lawsuit in part because of that fiasco, and it's interesting that no similarly cozy deals have come to light in his department since then. I hope he put the word out that such favoritism is unacceptable.

If he didn't, he should. And so should every other person in charge of a law enforcement agency. That is the only way it is going to stop.

And stop it should.

The one thing that can engender contempt for the law and erode public confidence in those sworn to uphold it is the thought that one cop might give favorable treatment to another cop, especially when it comes to drunken driving. That seems like a double whammy in the face of fairness.

No one wants to make a law officer into a citation factory. The human touch in enforcement is what sets our system above repressive, authoritarian regimes.

All we ask is equitable treatment for everyone.

And that includes those who flash a badge.