Editorial: Welcome reforms of Tampa DUI squad

Published Jan. 24, 2014

The Tampa Police Department is reforming its drunken-driving squad in a fair and sensible way. The new practices should give both law enforcement and the accused a stronger base of evidence, better enabling justice to prevail and narrowing the opportunity for officers and the well-connected to abuse their power and clout for personal gain. The reforms should help restore confidence in the department in the wake of last year's DUI arrest scandal.

The task force that police Chief Jane Castor empaneled to review 70 pending DUI cases could have offered a fuller perspective if its membership had been better balanced. The six-member team included a retired judge and five members from law enforcement, including the assistant police chief and two Tampa officers. While the task force was not charged with assessing guilt in any case, a representative from the defense side could have helped the team better accomplish its task, which was to determine if suspects were fairly detained and if arrest procedures were full, fair and complete enough to prosecute a case.

Still, the task force brought forth sound recommendations that Castor, to her credit, already has or will soon put in place. DUI officers will make fuller use of video recording. Capturing the totality of a suspect's interaction with police should help reduce accusations of selective enforcement. Patrol supervisors will use video, too, and more closely scrutinize arrest reports. Officers will look to use additional field sobriety tests, which could provide them with a sounder basis for whether to make an arrest. And police will do a better job interviewing passengers and witnesses and in writing reports to more usefully document what drivers did and said.

The changes should help repair some of the damage that former Sgt. Ray Fernandez helped cause by what prosecutors said was a setup arrest of a Tampa attorney involving a rival law firm. The reforms won't stop police from taking action based on tips, but they should make it harder for officers to go rogue on personal missions by strengthening the chain of command. The changes also clean up lazy reporting and other spotty practices in ways that should benefit both law enforcement and the accused by giving both sides a fuller picture of the evidence before any case proceeds to the more serious and expensive realm of court.

Castor served the city well by commissioning the task force, shaking up the DUI unit, firing Fernandez, disciplining a second officer involved in the setup case and moving quickly to make the operational changes. The panel said it found "no red flags" of systemic problems and praised the department for treating people professionally and with respect. Between the lines, the report is the latest narrative that calls out weaknesses in the lower rungs of the command chain. Castor at least has addressed the scandal. It's too bad federal prosecutors, the FBI and the Florida Bar have not shown the same urgency.