TAMPA — Hillsborough County is banning employees from participating in certain biker gangs and other criminal groups after a firefighter associated with the Outlaws motorcycle gang was accused of taking part in a bar fight in Key West.
In a memo Friday, County Administrator Mike Merrill outlined a new policy effective immediately barring membership in groups or gangs considered criminal organizations by the state or federal government.
Involvement in these organizations "will not be tolerated as these affiliations are contrary to the mission of public service," Merrill wrote. "This directive is a reminder of our continuing obligation to represent all the citizens of Hillsborough County."
The list of banned organizations is guided by the 2015 FBI National Gang Report and it includes the Outlaws, as well as Crips, Bloods, Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and the Pagans.
Violating the rule can result in termination of employment.
The announcement comes after an arrest warrant was issued in Key West for Clinton Neal Walker, a Hillsborough County firefighter and suspected member of the Outlaws motorcycle gang. He is accused of taking part in a September bar fight involving as many as 15 Outlaws members.
Walker, 33, of Bradenton, is wanted on a misdemeanor battery charge. According to an arrest warrant, Walker and other Outlaws members beat up the manager and an employee at a downtown Key West bar.
Walker was placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
According to the warrant, Walker is a "confirmed active member" of the Outlaws, considered by authorities to be the state's dominant motorcycle gang. It is strongest in South Florida but has chapters in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
According to the FBI, the Outlaws use their motorcycle clubs as conduits for crime, including trafficking in weapons and drugs.
Hillsborough County officials have known for months that Walker and at least one other firefighter were suspected members of the Outlaws. In August, Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones said the county was close to issuing a policy regarding association with biker groups but discussions were complicated by concerns over constitutional rights.
Jones said Thursday those conversations were on hold while county officials wait to see if the Florida State Fire Marshal asks lawmakers in Tallahassee to address the issue. He said participation in biker gangs by fire and rescue personnel was a "broad issue that impacts fire departments across Florida."
Apparently, the county decided not to wait on the state to act.
A proposal to disqualify employment of firefighters with "gang affiliations or known terrorist group affiliations" was sent to the State Fire Marshal in July by the Florida Firefighters Employment Standards and Training Council.
Existing disqualifications range from tobacco use to a felony conviction punishable by one year in prison.
There are currently no formal plans to update the list of disqualifications to include participation in a motorcycle gang, said Joel Brown, a spokesman for the State Fire Marshall. But Brown acknowledged there is an "ongoing conversation."
Whether that leads to statewide or local changes remains to be seen.
"It's fair to say the division is welcome to any and all conversations that would reinforce the high level of integrity of fire service in the state of Florida," Brown said. "We want to be very active in the conversation to continue to ensure that."
The issue is not isolated to Hillsborough. At least one firefighter in Pasco County is a member of the Pagans motorcycle gang.
Pasco County spokeswoman Tambrey Laine said there was no existing policy or legal basis to take action against the firefighter. The county is seeking guidance from the legislature, she said, and "is open to reviewing policies from other jurisdictions."
The city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County do not prohibit employees from participating in motorcycle gangs.
"However, should the need ever arise, we would certainly be open to discussing a human resources policy change to address it," said Benjamin Kirby, a spokesman for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Contact Steve Contorno at email@example.com. Follow @scontorno.