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‘It’s time to change:’ Police in Pinellas to partner on use-of-force investigations

In an effort to root out a perceived conflict of interest, major Pinellas law enforcement agencies will no longer investigate their own officers after use-of-force incidents

For as long as anyone in Pinellas County can remember, lethal interactions between law enforcement officers and the public were dealt with in the same way: The agency conducted a criminal investigation of their own employee’s actions.

“It’s time to change,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

In an effort to root out a perceived conflict of interest, major Pinellas law enforcement agencies will no longer investigate their own officers after use-of-force incidents. Instead, they will hand those cases over to partner departments, Gualtieri announced Tuesday.

The new Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force will include three homicide detectives each from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the St. Petersburg Police Department and the Clearwater Police Department. The Pinellas Park Police Department will contribute one detective. Some smaller police departments have also joined the task force but will not be required to contribute investigators, according to an agreement between the agencies.

Clearwater Police and St. Petersburg Police will divide use-of-force incidents involving Pinellas County deputies. Clearwater Police will supervise those that happen north of Ulmerton Road and Walsingham Road, and St. Petersburg Police will oversee those to the south. The Sheriff’s Office will be responsible for all other investigations, though other task force members can participate if the incident doesn’t involve their own department.

The agencies will still be responsible for determining if their officers’ actions violated policy and warrant internal investigation, independent of the criminal investigation. Most “in-custody” deaths at the jail will continue to be investigated by the Sheriff’s Office homicide unit, unless it involved use-of-force by a deputy, Gualtieri said.

Last month, Hillsborough County law enforcement agencies made a similar move, and agreed to ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to take over investigations into officer-involved shootings and “in-custody” deaths, except those that involve medical issues. Previously, agencies were investigating their own officers.

“An outside agency should take over the investigation, both for the integrity of the process and for community trust that the ultimate decision reached is just and without bias,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said.

Gualtieri said he believes the Pinellas task force will be a better model than working with FDLE, which gathers information, but does not make any determinations or recommendations.

The idea for the task force came to Gualtieri about three weeks ago, sparked by ongoing protests scrutinizing police action that have rocked the country since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 while in Minneapolis police custody.

“In the current situation we are in, it’s important we have public confidence,” he said. “No matter how well we have done it or how right we’ve done it, that may not sit right with people moving forward — knowing the agency conducting the investigation of an officer is the employer of that officer.”

He defended past internal criminal investigations as objective and fair, pointing to the arrest of Pinellas Deputy Tim Virden in 2016 on an attempted manslaughter charge after he shot a drunk man and lied about it. He noted that the State Attorney for the Sixth Judicial Circuits also conducts independent investigations of Pinellas use-of-force incidents.

But, he said, “let’s act before we have a potential issue.”

Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter said that use-of-force cases are “very rare” but “that doesn’t mean it’s not important.”

The agency had two use-of-force incidents that ended in death in the past two years, involving six officers. Two hundred and eighteen people were injured in use-of-force incidents with Clearwater officers in the past two years, but it’s not clear how many were serious.

The Sheriff’s Office had one deadly use of force incident in the past two years. Five hundred and eighteen people were injured, but only 13 were considered serious, according to the agency.

St. Petersburg Police had no deadly use of force in the past two years. The last one was in 2017. The agency did not share the number of people injured in use-of-force incidents in time for publication.

“It’s not just important that these investigations be done fairly and objectively and thoroughly — but they have to be perceived by the public and known by the public to be conducted in that manner,” Gualtieri said.

Some expressed skepticism of the new arrangement and called for a non-law enforcement body to review deadly use-of-force incidents.

“That’s not truly independent — it’s police investigating other police,” said Haydee Oropesa, a defense attorney who runs the commentary site FloridaYouJudge.com. “That’s not going to placate the public.”

She would like to see a model that includes members of the public and defense attorneys, not just police. She plans to invite Gualtieri and his Democratic challengers in the upcoming election, Eliseo Santana and James McLynas, to discuss the issue in an upcoming virtual panel on her website.

As a candidate, McLynas has promised to create a Community Police Accountability Board and deputize its members to give them the power to “investigate, request records.... and obtain subpoenas and warrants,” he wrote in a July 16 Facebook Post.

Gualtieri said he is reviewing other policies and looking for ways the agency can do better.

“The catalyst is the times we are in and doing a self-evaluation and making sure we have the public trust,” he said.

But at a press conference Tuesday, Gualtieri made clear he didn’t support a Pinellas County citizens’s review board with subpoena and investigative authority on top of the task force’s criminal investigation, the internal affairs investigation and use-of-deadly-force review board already used to evaluate these cases.

“I don’t support and I can’t ever see myself supporting a true investigative citizen’s review board that usurps what we do now,” he said.

There will be no extra money allocated to the task force. Each agency will be responsible for paying the costs associated with any investigations they oversee, including personnel and forensic science services costs.

The other agencies participating in the task force are Gulfport Police Department, Treasure Island Police Department, Indian Shores Police Department, Kenneth City Police Department, Belleair Police Department, Pinellas County Schools Police Department, and the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg Campus Police Department.

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