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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Tampa police chief holds officers accountable

Chief Brian Dugan bolstered public confidence in the Tampa Police Department Thursday by appropriately disciplining 10 officers charged with a range of misconduct. The internal investigation was by every outward sign thorough, timely and fair, and Dugan's careful handling of the situation underscored the department's commitment to the highest professional standards.

The investigation was triggered in September after a man complained that officers Mark Landry and John Laratta had threatened him "with physical violence" during a stop. Investigators reviewed Laratta's body camera footage and found he deactivated the device early into the call and prior to the interaction with the complainant. The officers denied threatening the man, and investigators cleared them due to a lack of witnesses or evidence. But supervisors reviewed other footage from Laratta's camera and noted a pattern of violations, from disposing of contraband to failing to document the detention and search of people and vehicles.

Officials described an environment where officers looking for bigger drug busts would not bother with minor offenders, allowing them to go free and disposing of the evidence to save time writing reports. Landry, Laratta and Officer Algenis Maceo were fired Thursday. Two officers received letters of counseling and five others were verbally admonished. Another officer named early-on was cleared entirely in March.

The camera footage showed no evidence the officers committed crimes or used excessive force, and investigators found no sign the officers used or sold the seized drugs, planted them on people or made false arrests. Of course, the police officers' failure to fully video and document these interactions leaves only a partial record from which to draw conclusions. But already, prosecutors have dropped at least four cases in which these officers were involved, and more cases are in jeopardy.

The department did a good job of holding its officers accountable by recognizing the specific role that each individual played. Those who had only a minor part - backing up a call, for example - received minor discipline. Dugan was careful to ensure that any punishment was in-line with an individual officer's behavior. That is only fair, and it should foster confidence in the ranks that all officers will be treated fairly.

The Tampa Police Department is investigating the officers' supervisors, to try to understand whether they knew or should have known what was happening. It's hard to imagine there were no red flags in the command given the number of patrol officers and incidents involved. The department has also tightened its procedures for operating body cameras and for submitting reports. Starting Monday, Dugan will hold marathon sessions to brief all 1,000 Tampa officers on the department's higher standards and expectations.

No police department can have officers abusing their discretion on the streets. Dugan showed strong leadership in addressing this problem. He was candid in explaining that any officer who lacked credibility cannot be an officer in Tampa. His thoughtful investigation prevented all officers involved from being painted with a broad brush. He understood the need to prevent the actions of a few officers from tarnishing the entire force. Dugan also was out-front with his officers and the public alike. "They need to hear directly from the chief what the expectations are of a Tampa police officer," he said. That's a welcome lesson in accountability.