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Police say courtesy has its limit: DUI

In law enforcement circles, they call it "professional courtesy." In its darker moments, it means that cops get to drive drunk.

Hernando County sheriff's deputy William H. Steele stumbled upon professional courtesy one night last week on Spring Hill Drive.

A Ford Bronco weaving down the road turned out be driven by a sheriff's deputy from neighboring Pasco County. Steele made his arrest, took the deputy to the county jail and then was pressured by two supervisors to drop the charge. They called it an "unarrest."

When the unarrest unraveled later in the week, the Pasco deputy resigned and the two Hernando supervisors received written reprimands.

What this illustrates is the touchy nature of extending professional courtesy.

It's a matter of discretion. Traffic cops use it every day with average citizens. Sometimes cops write tickets, sometimes they just give warnings. The same thing can happen when they stop another cop.

But there are limits.

"Certainly, professional courtesy goes on," said Hernando Sheriff Tom Mylander. "I think sometimes it goes back to where a lot of law enforcment officers don't have any friends outside the business because they feel like no one else will understand them."

"There is a bond. There is a fraternity. There is a trust," said Brooksville Police Chief Ed Tincher. "By the same token, we don't turn our heads, regardless of the person who's committing the crime."

Recent incidents suggest that a few heads have turned too far.

Four times in the last three months, employees of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office were pulled off the road because their driving behavior showed strong signs of inebriation. In three of those cases, the suspect went home without a charge.

Last November, Port Richey Patrol Officer Keith Longworth refused to arrest Pasco Corrections Officer Nicolas Sagnelli. Sagnelli appeared to be severely intoxicated, Longworth said.

Not wanting to make an arrest, Longworth called in Sagnelli's supervisors. They took him to the Sheriff's Office, where he registered .18 on a blood-alcohol test _ almost twice the level at which intoxication is presumed under Florida law.

Last December, Largo Police Officer Michael Kirkpatrick stopped Pasco Deputy Robert Cressman, who was weaving and speeding. Though another Largo officer said Cressman was "obviously intoxicated," Kirkpatrick let Cressman go home.

More recent was the erratic driving that Hernando Deputy Steele observed last week before he arrested, and then "unarrested," Pasco Deputy Kurt A. Gell. In a written report, Steele gave this account:

Gell's Ford Bronco was traveling east "weaving drastically across the double yellow line." At Carrine Street, Gell "stepped on the brakes though there was no other vehicles around him, nor was there any obstruction which would necessitate braking."

Gell "then skidded into the intersection at Mariner and Spring Hill Drive, braking late for a . . . red light. This action caused another vehicle . . . to swerve to avoid a collision."

Then Gell "skidded over the left turn lane . . . then, while the light was still red, made a sharp right turn and proceeded south. . . . The vehicle continued to weave across the double yellow line."

Steele put on his light and siren, the report says, and Gell traveled another quarter mile before skidding to a stop. Gell "immediately stepped out of his car, stumbled into the traffic way, with his badge case in hand." Gell "stated he was a sergeant with the Pasco Sheriff's Office. I advised him that it did not matter, that I was investigating possible drunken driving."

With "a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage about his breath," Gell said "he would appreciate professional courtesy," Steele wrote. Gell "had great difficulty in just standing up."

Steele took Gell to the jail and called in a Breathalyzer technician. The arrest was rolling along, when Steele bumped straight into the powerful influence that "professional courtesy" can exert _ even across county lines.

While top officials uniformly deny that fellow officers should get any special treatment, the opposite sentiment can reach high into the chain of command.

Steele recently had moved from Maryland, and had only six months' experience.

Recognizing sensitivity in his arrest, Steele radioed to his immediate boss, Sgt. Lanny Corlew, and asked him to come to the jail for advice. Corlew telephoned his boss, Lt. Robert Henning, who recommended that Steele "unarrest" Gell and let his wife retrieve him from the jail.

"My thinking . . . was to let Pasco S.O. handle the problem internally," Henning wrote in a report.

Steele complied. "I was surprised at this advice," he wrote. But "I was new, and was not going to disregard any advice in such a situation."

It's hard to pinpoint the extent of "professional courtesy" on North Suncoast roads. Officers often exercise their discretion right on the scene. The suspect goes home. Supervisors aren't called in. Unarrests don't make headlines.

But when cases do blossom into controversy, the inebriated driver and the arresting officers face discipline.

Both Henning and Corlew have written reprimands in their personnel files as a result of last Tuesday morning's incident. Mylander promised that Hernando employees have learned not to repeat Steele's mistake of bending to superiors' influence about an arrest.

"This is a hell of a job to do here," Mylander said about his field. "I'm sure we've all learned something lately."

Gell resigned Friday morning in the midst of an internal investigation by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Earlier, Deputy Sagnelli was fired after the Port Richey traffic stop and Cressman was suspended for five days without pay after being stopped in Largo.

"We tell people not to violate the law," said Pasco Sheriff Jim Gillum. "If they make mistakes, we have to take necessary action."

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has about 600 employees, Gillum said. He couldn't recall any particular instance when one sheriff's deputy within Pasco arrested another deputy for drunken driving.

Nor was he aware of any deputy extending professional courtesy to another deputy when it came to drunken driving.

"Either it's luck or folks are using good sense," Gillum said. "I like to think they are using good sense."

As for the four recent incidents involving his employees outside his jurisdiction, Gillum said, "We don't view it as some indicator of some emerging problem. Looking at all the factors, it appears to be a series of unfortunate coincidence."

Gillum said he, personally, never drinks and drives. "Heaven forbid," he said.

In recent years, the county has offered assistance programs for employees with drinking problems, said Gillum, and many employees have found help with stress and substance abuse.

The high-stress job of dealing with crime every day can lead officers to the bottle, said Hernando Sheriff Mylander.

"We have lost a lot of people in this business because of stress," he said. In Hernando, sheriff's employees with alcohol problems are referred to a counselor. Mylander said deputies who use drinks to fight off daily stress should not be punished.

"You're going to have to have some kind of release valve. Law enforcement officers see the very worst, and that's going to be traumatic.

"It's almost a standard for industry and law enforcement to get help for these people," Mylander said. "Of course, you can offer any kind of help to somebody, but it doesn't do any good unless they want it."

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