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Three Tampa police officers fired for cutting corners with detentions, searches and drug disposal

TAMPA — One day last September, a man complained to the Tampa Police Department that two officers had threatened him with violence while they were investigating a suspicious vehicle.

The officers, John Laratta and Mark Landry, said it wasn't true. Laratta was equipped with a body-worn camera, which could have cleared the pair. But when investigators pulled the footage, they found Landry had shut off the recording moments before the encounter.

It was a violation of the department's camera policy and it prompted a broader look at both officers.

On Thursday, they were fired, along with a third officer, Algenis Maceo, following a seven-month investigation that revealed what Police Chief Brian Dugan described as a pattern of bad behavior that included failures to document detentions and searches and to properly dispose of seized drugs.

Questions about the officers' integrity have made it impossible for them to testify in court, Dugan said, leading to the dismissal of five criminal cases so far. Several other cases are in jeopardy.

"They have embarrassed our police department," Dugan said. "They have placed the community's trust in jeopardy. They have tarnished our brand. And they betrayed the oath that they swore to uphold. I could not be more disappointed."

Seven other officers also received discipline, including letters of counseling and oral admonishments, after the probe turned up a number of department policy violations.

Starting Monday, Dugan said, he will personally address each of the department's 1,000 officers to explain what went wrong and to reinforce the department's mission.

"Some of them are not going to be happy," Dugan told the Tampa Bay Times. "But they need to hear it directly from the chief."

READ MORE: They failed to document drug stops and activate body cameras. Now, Tampa police officers face discipline.

Dugan said one thing that concerned him initially was the discovery that the officers took small amounts of marijuana from people without documenting it or issuing citations. Investigators looked at the possibility that the two were using the drugs, selling them, or planting them on people.

"We have no reason to believe any of that took place," Dugan said. Landry and Laratta both underwent drug testing after they were suspended from duty in November and both were clean.

The chief said he concluded that the pair simply were not bothering to properly document small drug seizures.

"I think they had a mentality that there were bigger fish to fry," Dugan said. "They were making a lot of big arrests because they weren't documenting the small stuff."

Landry, Laratta and Maceo were assigned to street patrol in District 3, which covers Ybor City and much of East Tampa.

Landry and Laratta were suspended from duty in November while the investigation was under way. Maceo was suspended in February.

The investigation began in September after police received the citizen complaint.

The department's Professional Standards Bureau pulled all of Laratta's video footage back to May 15, a total of 349 separate incidents. They identified 29 incidents in which policy violations were committed by a total of 10 officers.

The officers disciplined are Sarah Brown, Jonathan Darling, Jose Estrada, Daniel Falk, Jessica Gillotte, Andrew Lepochat, and Bryan Tracy.

An 11th officer, Ryan Zenko, was cleared of wrongdoing.

"If we want to have credibility as a department, and I want credibility as chief of police, I have to take these things seriously," Dugan said.

Landry and Laratta were found to have committed violations involving their attention to duty, courtesy to the public and documentation of their work.

Investigators also found that Laratta engaged in a pattern of turning off or manipulating his body-worn camera, Dugan said. He violated the camera policy 22 times.

The number of policy violations led the officers' chain of command to label the trio incompetent.

"Cops are human," Dugan said. "I don't expect them to be perfect, but I expect them to have character and I expect them to have integrity and I felt like that was lacking in these three."

The department is continuing to investigate whether the officers' supervisors were aware of their behavior, Dugan said.

Landry and Larotta joined the Tampa Police Department in May 2015. Maceo joined in October 2016.

Landry was named the department's Officer of the Month in April 2018 for work that led to seizures of drugs and stolen guns.

The officers have 21 days to contest their termination through their union, the Tampa Police Benevolent Association.

"We disagree with the chief's decision to terminate these officers," union president Abe Carmack said in a news release Thursday. "The Tampa PBA is in the process of reviewing the facts of each case and is prepared to take appropriate action in accordance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement after all circumstances are considered."

The chief said the department would tweak some of its policies in the wake of the investigation. A requirement will be added, for example, that officers with body cameras record nearly all encounters.

The department has had 60 body-worn cameras since 2015. They are looking to purchase more.

Contact Dan Sullivan at Follow @TimesDan.