TAMPA — Ten Tampa police officers face disciplinary action after they failed to document drug offenses, disposed of evidence and, in some cases, turned off their body cameras while detaining suspects.
Officers admitted they found small amounts marijuana, drug paraphernalia or both while detaining and searching suspects. But instead of making arrests, filing reports and placing the drugs into evidence, the officers let the offenders go and disposed of the evidence, according to the summary report of an investigation that ended this month. Some officers equipped with body-worn cameras didn't activate the devices during the stops, the investigation found.
Of the 10 officers found to have violate department policy, three have "failed to maintain sufficient competency" to perform their duties as patrol officers and were placed on administrative duty. Some could be fired. And the deparment is now conducting an internal inquiry focused on the officers' supervisors, department spokesman Steve Hegarty said.
The fallout could extend beyond the officers' careers. Hegarty acknowledged department officials are concerned that pending cases investigated by the officers could be compromised as defense attorneys seize on the findings by calling into question the officers' credibility as witnesses.
"It does raise questions about whether some cases might be in jeopardy," spokesman Steve Hegarty said.
The investigation began in September 2018 after a man complained to the department that patrol officers Mark Landry and John Laratta threatened him with physical violence during a call, the summary report says. Investigators reviewed Laratta's body-worn camera footage and found he deactivated the device about four minutes into the 32-minute call.
Because of the missing footage, the officers' supervisors could not substantiate the claim of a threat. But supervisors reviewed other footage from Laratta's camera and found a pattern of department violations, which included failing to submit required reports and disposing of contraband instead of entering it into evidence, the report says.
The department's Professional Standards Bureau took over the investigation and reviewed footage dating to May 2018, when Laratta was issued the camera. Of 349 incidents reviewed, investigators found 29 incidents involving policy violations committed by 10 officers.
Three of the officers — Landry, Laratta and Algenis Maceo — were immediately placed on administrative duty "due to the seriousness and volume of policy violations the three committed," the report says.
A search of Laratta's patrol vehicle turned up a small amount of marijuana. He and Landry were drug tested because of the many policy violations involving the seizure of narcotics. Neither test came back positive.
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In total, investigators found Laratta violated policies on 134 occasions, Landry on 81 occasions and Maceo on 18 occasions.
The most egregious violations by Maceo and the other seven officers involved failing to document legal detentions, searches and handcuffing of citizens, and disposing of contraband instead of entering it into evidence.
Investigators found no evidence that officers planted drugs on people or made false arrests, the report says.
"To the contrary, the officers were failing to charge or otherwise properly process and document incidents where drug charges would have been appropriate," the report says.
There is no evidence to suggest that any officers were using or selling seized drugs, according to the report.
The other officers found to have violated policy are Sarah Brown, Jonathan Darling, Joe Estrada, Daniel Falk, Jessica Gillotte, Andrew Lepochat, and Bryan Tracy.
"They cut corners," Hegarty said. "We consider it to be very serious if you're not documenting what you're doing out on the street and not properly dealing with evidence and drugs."
The summary report does not say how the officers were disposing of the drugs. Hegarty said in some cases the officers left it on the ground.
None of the officers have been disciplined yet. A resolution is expected to take a few more weeks.
Landry, Laratta and Maceo are facing the most serious disciplinary action and could be fired, Hegarty said. Action taken against the other eight officer could range from a letter of counseling to suspension.
Earlier this month, the department launched the inquiry into the officers' supervisors, Hegarty said.
"We're looking to see, given what we've seen with the officers, whether the supervisors could have done anything differently," Hegarty said.
Abe Carmack, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents Tampa police officers, declined to comment because the disciplinary cases are still pending.
Landry and Laratta joined the agency on the same day in May 2015. Maceo was hired in October 2016.
Landry was picked as the department's officer of the month in April 2018.
"While the city sleeps, Officer Mark Landry patrols Tampa on the midnight shift," reads a department Facebook post announcing the award. The post includes a list of six calls Landry responded to during the previous February that resulted in the seizure of stolen guns, cocaine and marijuana.
At least one local defense attorney whose client was arrested by Landry and Laratta has already raised the internal investigation in court.
Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez was notified by the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office that the two officers had been put on administrative duty as a result of the internal inquiry. In August, Landry and Laratta stopped Fernandez' client Samuel Rosado and found an AK-47, a 9 mm pistol, 300 rounds of ammunition, 22 THC resin capsules, and nine grams of marijuana, among other items, court records show. Rosado, 34, was charged with drug possession and illegal possession of a firearm because he was already a convicted felon.
Fernandez filed a motion March 21 seeking records about the internal investigation. On Thursday, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office filed notice that it was dropping the charges against Rosado.
In a statement to the Times, the State Attorney's Office said, "The credibility of officers, who are essential witnesses in this case, has been called into question by Tampa Police Department's internal investigation, and going forward with the prosecution would not have been appropriate."
The office added that so far, it has sent similar notices in connection with 25 cases handled by Landry and Laratta and 35 cases handled by Maceo.
Fernandez said Landry and Laratta are now tainted witnesses.
"I can't see a single case surviving that these guys have done," Fernandez said. "This is not a pebble tossed into a calm lake. This is a brick."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.