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Reversals won't stop firings, chief vows

Investigators determined that one man lied about how a fellow employee caused a death. Another man had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl.

Both men work for the city. They patrol the streets of Clearwater.

They are police officers who were fired for misconduct and then rehired on the orders of arbitrators.

Officers Phillip Biazzo and Brian Blanco represent the latest attempts and failures by police Chief Sid Klein to enforce what he describes as the high ethical standards expected of his officers.

Recent events and department history show that enforcing those standards has never been easy or very successful.

"Obviously, there's something wrong with the process," Klein said. "It's got to be fixed at a higher level than police chiefs. Ultimately, the public will demand it."

Since the early 1980s, 13 Clearwater officers have been fired for misconduct, and one was demoted to a civilian job. As a result of civil service appeals or arbitrators' rulings, Klein was forced to rehire eight of the officers, most of whom were later fired again for good. The demoted officer was also reinstated.

Some of the officers were fired for lying. Biazzo was fired last year for lying to investigators about another officer's role in the death of a man they were trying to arrest. Biazzo was reinstated after an arbitrator decided he did not lie intentionally and eventually told the truth.

Klein fired Blanco in December 1997 for having a consensual sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl when he was 20, which is allowed under state law. An arbitrator ruled Blanco's relationship was legal, off-duty and did not affect his work.

Other officers ordered reinstated had been fired for using excessive force or a combination of other misconduct allegations that were not upheld.

Only five fired officers have not been reinstated. Two of them killed people.

Steven P. Anderson is serving life in prison for strangling his fiancee. Robert Milliron shot an unarmed man when he responded to a fight call, was indicted for manslaughter and was later found innocent.

Another officer had a habit of strip-searching and frisking young girls.

Another peeked in a woman's bathroom window, and the fifth was convicted of drunken driving.

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The Fraternal Order of Police represents Clearwater officers and pays for their legal expenses and arbitration in disciplinary action. That, says Klein, is a key factor he faces in his battle to get rid of people who violate department standards.

"In general, if you pay your union dues, you get a defense for anything just about short of murder," Klein said. "But the arbitration process is a necessary evil. There should be a mechanism for accused officers to challenge disciplinary action."

The real problem, he said, is the lack of support from the state's Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission. A panel of law enforcement officials appointed by the governor, the commission is responsible for determining whether an officer's state certification should be revoked for misconduct.

State certification is required for an officer to work in Florida.

But commission officials say they can work only within the commission's penalty guidelines.

"If I have to put my finger on the root cause of these problems, it is the inability of the commission to aggressively pursue revocation of these officers' certifications," Klein said. "In most of these cases, I asked for the officers to be decertified.

"If a police chief makes a recommendation to the commission that an officer should be decertified, that's a pretty strong statement. Yet we're constantly overruled because the commission says the offense doesn't rise to their standards for decertification."

Before Blanco was reinstated, the commission reviewed the Internal Affairs investigation and Klein's request for decertification.

In a May 15 letter to Klein, the commission staff wrote that there was no basis for action against Blanco because his conduct did not fall within "the parameters of a moral character violation" under the commission guidelines.

"Police chiefs and agency heads have got to hold their officers to a higher standard of conduct," Klein said. "Blanco is a perfect example. He violated the ethical standards of this Police Department."

Bill Liquori, Altamonte Springs police chief who is a former commission chairman and a current commission member, says the penalty guidelines are being reviewed.

"There's only certain things the commission can address," said Liquori, who sympathizes with Klein. "We are revisiting the penalty guidelines, and we are going to see some changes. Some guidelines are ludicrous, but we've closed a few loopholes.

"By and large, we do a good job. Can stuff fall through the cracks? Yes."

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The commission's primary mission is training, according to Liquori, and discipline is secondary. He also noted that Florida is one of the few states that decertifies officers.

He described Klein as "a professional beyond professional" who refuses to accept less than he expects, which can be frustrating.

"As chiefs, we live with that," Liquori said. "We all have different thresholds as to what we will or will not accept."

Dennis Acker, president of the Clearwater Fraternal Order of Police chapter, said it is a "crap shoot" to predict what discipline the commission may order. He said one case the commission reviewed involved some deputies in a rural county who, while on duty, shot to death a farmer's pig to eat at a cookout.

"Now, you'd think that was a crime, but they got censured and put back to work," Acker said. "That was one of the strangest damn things."

In most disciplinary cases, he said, the union has no choice but to represent members. It does not matter what the union thinks of the allegations, or what it costs.

Representing the Clearwater officer charged with manslaughter cost the union $120,000.

Acker thinks that Klein might be more successful in some cases if he used 30- or 60-day suspensions in lieu of firing. He acknowledged that constant reversals of Klein's disciplinary action have an adverse affect.

"I think the (officers) start believing that no matter what happens, the union will protect them," he said. "They think they'll get their job back no matter what they do."

Klein also worries about what's happening to the public's opinion of his department and his officers.

"It's not a healthy situation for the officer involved or the department, and the end result has got to diminish the overall confidence in the public's eyes that police can clean their own house," he said. "It affects our credibility."

He has no plans to cease trying to enforce standards and regulations he feels are appropriate for Clearwater officers. Even with the odds against him, he will continue to fire officers.

"I could not live with myself if ... I had to do other than the right thing," Klein said.

REINSTATED OR DEMOTED

These Clearwater officers were fired or demoted and then reinstated. Some were then fired again:

GEORGE RUPPERT: He was fired twice. The first time was in February 1980 for insubordination when he refused to give a blood sample as part of a city-required physical and threatened medical personnel. After an arbitrator reinstated him, he was fired in November 1981 for hitting a man who was pinned to the floor and slapping him when he was later strapped to a hospital table.

JOSEPH DESANTIS: It took DeSantis four years to get his job back after he was fired in 1985 for four counts of excessive force. His firing was upheld by a civil service board and a state hearing offficer, but then a three-judge panel decided he was entitled to another civil service hearing. DeSantis was reinstated without back pay and later quit.

CHARLES KETTELL: In June 1987, Kettell was fired for shooting at a car he said was trying to run over him. His firing was overturned in August 1989 by a federal abitrator who decided the city did not prove Kettell intentionally lied about the incident. Kettell retired several months later because of stress related to two incidents in which he fired his gun.

WILLIAM WELLER: He was removed from the police force in June 1987 and transferred to a civilian job at the department for firing three shots at a car that ran a roadblock. An arbitrator decided in January 1988 that he was justified in shooting because the driver seemed to be someone who may injure or kill someone. Weller is still a Clearwater officer.

RICHARD W. PARKER: Police Chief Sid Klein recommended firing Parker in 1988 for eight separate violations. Instead, the civil service review board gave Parker a 24-day suspension. In July 1989, he was fired for soliciting a prostitute to perform a sex act when he was off-duty and for squeezing a woman's buttocks at a nightclub. An arbitrator upheld the firing.

MICHAEL MENDEZ: He was fired twice in two years. In December 1994, Mendez was fired for lying and other misconduct involving an argument with his wife. When he appealed, former assistant city manager Kathy Rice did not sustain the lying complaint and reinstated him. Mendez was fired again in April 1997 after investigators determined he lied repeatedly about a cruiser accident.

JOHN E. SMITH: His first firing was in June 1995 for lying about making improper advances toward a woman who then died before she could testify at his arbitration. He was reinstated in October 1996. Four months later, Smith was to be fired for kneeing Wieslaw Skowronek so severely he died and for then lying about it. He was fired as he was arrested for buying steroids. Smith was sentenced to probation.

PHILLIP BIAZZO: In March 1997, Biazzo was fired for lying to investigators about Smith's role in Skowronek's death. He was reinstated a year later by an arbitrator who decided Biazzo did not intentionally lie. In an unusual move, the city went to court to try to vacate or modify the ruling, but a judge let it stand.

BRIAN BLANCO: An off-duty sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl resulted in his firing for misconduct in December 1997. Last month, Blanco was reinstated when an arbitrator decided the consensual relationship was legal, private and did not affect his work. Blanco was 20 at the time of the relationship. Under Florida law, 16 and 17 year olds may engage in sex provided the other participant is not over 23.

NOT REHIRED

These Clearwater officers were fired and not rehired, or resigned in lieu of being fired:

STEVEN P. ANDERSON: After he was arrested and accused of strangling his fiance during a lover's quarrel in 1985, Anderson was fired and charged with first-degree murder. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

KENNETH BECK: In August 1989, Klein recommended Beck's firing after an investigation into allegations that the officer strip-searched a 16-year-old girl and frisked a 17-year-old girl during a routine traffic stop. Beck initially contested the firing, but then decided to resign.

THOMAS J. HUBER: When he refused to accept a demotion to a civilian position after he was arrested and convicted of driving under the influence, Huber was fired in June 1990. He had been suspended the previous year for 10 days when he was convicted of leaving the scene of an accident.

JAMES DEFALCO; A Clearwater officer for about four months, he resigned rather than be fired in 1987. DeFalco was under investigation for allegations of peeking into a woman's bathroom window while on duty. He had met the woman while investigating an earlier prowler complaint.

ROBERT MILLIRON: After Milliron fatally shot a 25-year-old man outside a bar in 1991, Klein fired him for excessive force and other violations. The victim, John Crouch, was attending his brother's bachelor party when the officer stopped to investigate a fight call. Milliron was indicted for manslaughter and later found innocent.

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