TAMPA — Soon after starting a job as a University of South Florida police officer, Douglas Widmann found that a critical piece of equipment often let him down: the two-way portable radio he used to communicate with dispatchers didn't work in many buildings on campus.
That claim is now the basis for a breach of contract lawsuit Widmann recently filed against USF's Board of Trustees. According to the complaint, Widmann resigned because USF gave him a "defective" radio and body armor that didn't fit, so he shouldn't be required to repay more than $10,000 the university is demanding for leaving before the three-year term spelled out in his employment contract.
But Widmann is motivated by more than his own self-interests, said Leighton Leib, one of his attorneys.
"I think he feels ethically, morally he needed to speak out," Leib said. "He believes in an ethos associated with law enforcement but overriding that is a concern for the people he's protecting and serving."
University officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, but USF Police Chief Chris Daniel said the department's Harris XG-75P radios work well and do not compromise safety.
"The safety of the students, faculty and staff is paramount," Daniel said. "We're always looking for opportunities to improve, but they should have confidence the police department has the ability to communicate effectively and react to circumstances that could put them in jeopardy."
A U.S. Army veteran who is still a member of the Individual Ready Reserve, Widmann previously worked for the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake and moved to the Tampa Bay area in December 2017 with his wife, who is also a law enforcement officer, according to the complaint.
Widmann accepted an offer with USF in April and signed a contact in May.
A section of the contract states that employees who voluntarily terminate their employment agree to reimburse USF for the cost of training, uniforms and body armor. But Widmann's lawsuit claims USF breached the contract by giving him a "defective" radio that "lost its signal, and therefore did not work at all, inside many, if not most" USF buildings, including "multiple" student dormitories, the complaint says.
The radios failed when Widmann was working with his department trainer, when responding to calls for service including emergency calls, and while participating in active shooter drills in USF's ROTC building, according to the complaint. When the radios didn't work, Widmann and other officers had to use their cell phones to reach department dispatchers.
USF "jeopardized Plaintiff’s safety and the safety of his fellow Department law enforcement officers — as well as the safety of USF students, faculty, and staff members — by providing Plaintiff and his Department colleagues radios that did not work inside these buildings," the complaint says.
Widmann also had to use his own personal body armor because the agency-issue armor did not fit properly, the suit says.
Widmann claims he raised issues with supervisors but he was not given "functional substitutes." He resigned in October and returned to the Salt Lake City department. Soon after, the suit says, USF demanded he repay the department $10,251.
The importance of functioning radios was highlighted by the investigation into last year's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A review of the incident found that an antiquated radio system used by the Broward Sheriff's Office collapsed, crippling the emergency response to the shooting that left 17 dead.
Daniel, the police chief, said USF's radio system was purchased about 10 years ago and meets industry standards for digital radios, allowing them to communicate with other agencies including the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. He acknowledged there are some locations on campus where radio reception is poor and officers use their cell phones as a backup to reach dispatchers, but it's "not the norm."
"Just like any system, there are going to be spots in the buildings they may have difficulty communicating in," Daniel said. "I'm confident in the radios and I'm confident in my personnel that if a weak spot occurs, they can manage their way out of it."
The West Central Florida Police Benevolent represents USF police officers in collective bargaining. Union president Nick Marolda said he hasn't heard complaints from other USF officers about the radios.
"If I did, that's something I'd want to address," Marolda said. "It's pretty important for police officers to have working radios."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.