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Waldo votes to disband its police department

The AAA erected signs like this one outside the town of Waldo warning motorists about speed traps. [Associated Press / AAA]
Published Oct. 1, 2014

On Tuesday night, the Waldo City Council voted 4-1 in favor of disbanding its department, effective at midnight.

Waldo's officers will collect pay until Oct. 31 as city officials determine how to tie up loose ends. There are still plenty of cases — primarily traffic citations — awaiting court dates, and equipment that needs to be inventoried or sold.

"We're all going to be unemployed," Waldo police Officer Tim Logan said as a silver Mercedes sedan whizzed by his black and white police sport utility vehicle Tuesday afternoon. The equipment in the cruiser showed the luxury car was traveling at 60 mph in a 45 mph zone.

Waldo has long carried the notoriety as a speed trap with black and white patrol cars working busy stretches of U.S. 301 and State Road 24, but that began to change last month when its last police chief, Mike Szabo, was suspended pending the results of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation.

On Aug. 26, five Waldo officers revolted against Szabo and Cpl. Kenneth Smith with a presentation before the City Council that was rife with allegations that included an unlawful ticket quota, deceptive court appearances and unethical evidence storage.

Shortly after the presentation, Waldo City Manager Kim Worley also suspended Smith, with the launch of a second FDLE investigation. Both Szabo and Smith later resigned.

In the absence of a chief, Worley signed a monthlong contract with Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell on Sept. 3 to receive the temporary services of her training lieutenant, Steve Maynard, whom she temporarily promoted to captain for the assignment.

Last week, Darnell told Worley she would not extend the contract, which apparently left Waldo with little option but to close its police department.

During the Tuesday night meeting, Worley said an audit of the department conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determined that the city would need to drastically update its storage facilities and computer systems to keep up with standards required for criminal investigations.

"The cost is just too high," Worley said.

Waldo City Councilwoman Carolyn Wade was reluctant to vote in favor of the police department closure, but said she understood it was inevitable. Conversations with State Attorney Bill Cervone led her to believe it was the only decision to save the city from more bad publicity, she said. Wade said Cervone told her that if the city chose to keep the department open, he would bring a case before the Alachua County grand jury, and it would return with a humiliating presentment.

"Too much has gone too far, and I don't think we can recover," Wade said.

Plenty of residents opposed disbanding the police department and many said they were confused and angry. Kim Andrews, owner of Andrews Knife and Muzzleloading, even offered to chip in a few hundred dollars.

"These guys keep us safe," Andrews said. "People will die if this department goes away and the blood will be on all of your hands."

After the meeting, Waldo police Officer Brandon Roberts — who led the Aug. 26 presentation that unveiled the unlawful ticket quota — unpinned his badge and smiled. He said he found it funny that the actions of Szabo and Smith led to the loss of his job, but he said what he and four officers did was in the fabric of the oath they swore to as officers.

"It's what was right," Roberts said. "A lot of people complain about cops not stepping across the blue line, and this is a prime example, because you have to worry about this kind of stuff."

Roberts added that the resignations of Szabo and Smith were worth the loss of his own job.

"If I took down two bad ones, it was worth it," Roberts said.

Police coverage for the city of Waldo now will fall under the supervision of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office. Sgt. Becky Butscher, a sheriff's spokeswoman, said her department is working to allocate more deputies to the area.

State Attorney Cervone said Waldo police are not out of the woods in regards to the two FDLE investigations. Both remain active and Cervone plans to meet with agents later this week.

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