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News Story
Updated: 10/04/2013 06:47:04PM

An LPD reality check is overdue

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Given the rapidity with which the Lakeland Police Department scandals have unfolded, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it was three months ago when State Attorney Jerry Hill first reported immoral on-duty behavior to the LPD’s leadership.

Several members of the department were having sex — during duty hours, in the police station and patrol cars — with an employee, Hill reported. Many of the officers and the administrative employee with whom they were carrying on a relationship reportedly admitted to the truth of the allegations.

Thus far, 24 officers, up to the rank of captain, have been disciplined, including 13 who resigned in the face of termination.

In other words, this was not the misbehavior of a couple of rogue rookies.

The officers disciplined apparently did not include those on the force, including supervisors, who were aware of the misconduct and did not report it.

Hill’s office determined that the veracity of seven officers was so suspect that they will not be called to testify by his prosecutors.

Though it received less notice, at about the time Hill made his report last June, posts on Facebook showed risqué remarks about police misconduct allegedly written by Lakeland’s 911 dispatchers on mirrors at an Orlando bar.

No disciplinary action was taken.

The most recent scandal developed last week when a Lakeland officer was charged with two counts of sexual battery and one count of stalking. The accused officer is entitled to his presumption of innocence.

But no such presumption exists in a publicly-aired radio conversation between a 911 dispatcher and an officer sharing laughter about a victim’s call for help, saying that she was being pressured to have sex by a Lakeland police officer.

Was the alleged perpetrator emboldened by the lack of criminal prosecution of his 24 colleagues? Or was he reassured by the fact that an officer who required a young woman to shake her bra after a traffic stop was disciplined only for failing to key his microphone during the incident, not for his conduct? As state attorney, Jerry Hill finally has had enough.

Last week, he wrote a letter to the city’s governmental leadership saying it was apparent that Chief Lisa Womack is “incapable of leading the Lakeland Police Department.”

He said the city’s “course of action has been to stonewall, filibuster, and hope the problems go away.”

City Manager Doug Thomas said Hill’s charges are “both wrong and reckless.” Mayor Gow Fields also defended the city’s inaction.

Hill has questioned why the city is spending money to try to block release of a grand jury report on its investigation into conduct at the LPD. In its investigative role, the grand jury is held in our system to be the ultimate fact-finding authority. Hill said that the police chief’s defense that she inherited her problems from her predecessors doesn’t excuse what has happened on her watch.

A whisper campaign has suggested that the criticism of the chief is related to the fact that she is a woman.

Oh, please! Haven’t we gotten beyond that lame response when a woman or a minority is held to account for his or her performance in public office? Chief Womack’s response was to say that Hill doesn’t like her. Only Hill and Womack know if that is true.

Even if it is, does that excuse rampant misconduct on duty, unreliable testimony, and an “Isn’t that funny?” attitude by a dispatcher and an officer over a charge of sexual intimidation by another officer? It could be persuasively argued that our city, like others in Polk County, doesn’t really have a dog in this fight. But Lakeland is the 500-pound gorilla among Polk’s municipalities, and its widely-publicized problems have attracted endless unfavorable attention throughout Central Florida.

Visiting motorists driving through Lakeland are entitled to see an LPD police car without wondering about the professionalism of the officer behind the wheel. All Polk Countians have an interest in seeing the county’s largest municipal police force earn the respect of the entire county.

A reality check at the LPD is long overdue.

The police chief answers to the city manager; the manager answers to the mayor and the city commission; the mayor and commissioners answer to the voters.

Somewhere in that pecking order, corrective action is long overdue.


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