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Police officers need ethics and discipline, too

When it comes to judging the professional behavior of police officers, it shouldn't turn into a battle of them against us. It is in everyone's best interest _ officers', residents', police chiefs' _ to agree to a code of ethics for officers and a range of punishment for those who stray.

Unfortunately, that is not now the case.

Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein has fired some officers for serious ethical violations; yet, some of those officers have been reinstated over Klein's objection.

Since 1980, nine Clearwater police officers have been fired or demoted for offenses ranging from lying and improper sexual conduct to discharging their firearms inappropriately, only to be reinstated, according to a recent story by Times staff writer Jane Meinhardt.

In some of those cases, the officer went on to commit other serious violations. Officer John E. Smith was fired in 1995 for lying, but reinstated the following year. A few months later he was involved in an arrest that led to the death of a suspect; soon after that, he was arrested for buying steroids.

Clearwater is not the only city struggling with the problem.

In Largo, Officer John Ferraro had been investigated, reprimanded and suspended for a variety of department violations, yet he was able to keep his job. In 1995, Ferraro shot and killed a suspect he was chasing; while the officer was cleared of any crime, the city ended up paying the dead man's family $25,000. Last month, as deputies sought to question Ferraro about a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl, the officer committed suicide.

Most police officers in North Pinellas County carry out their difficult duties in a professional manner. But when an officer crosses the line, he harms not only the victim of his misdeeds but also the credibility his fellow officers have earned.

So why is it so difficult to fire an officer who has lied to his boss, endangered the lives of others or been involved in unethical sexual behavior?

At the state level, the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission has antiquated guidelines for when an officer's certification should be revoked. The commission is currently reviewing its penalty guidelines, and residents should encourage the commission to tighten the rules.

The more immediate problem police chiefs face when dealing with an officer who has broken the rules is the intransigence of the police union, whose motto sometimes seems to be: "We support our officers, right or wrong."

While the union understandably keeps a hard edge when negotiating issues involving compensation and working conditions for police officers, it should reconsider those tactics when it comes to defending an officer who obviously violated department policies.

In Clearwater, the union usually backs an officer no matter what the facts.

"In general, if you pay your union dues, you get a defense for anything just about short of murder," Klein told Meinhardt.

Even Dennis Acker, president of the Clearwater Fraternal Order of Police, acknowledged that frequent reversals of Klein's disciplinary decisions bring unwanted consequences.

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

Acker and other union officials should heed the warning. Ultimately, it is self-destructive for the union to defend an officer's unethical or immoral actions if by doing so the union undermines every officer's credibility.

In other words, the union should use good judgment in these matters. Every officer has a right to a defense, but the union doesn't have to jump to the defense of every officer.

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