the north face cycling A legacy of leniency
After a sex fueled party that led to a scandal, a suicide, and a resignation, the chief’s job is on the line. But the department’s approach to discipline predates him.
By SHELBY WEBB and LEE WILLIAMS
One police officer wrote bad rent checks and warned his landlord not to do to make life tough on him. Another officer sent a picture of his genitals to undercover detectives working a sex sting. Two more entered a home without a warrant to arrest a man over a misdemeanor noise complaint.
But none of the officers involved were fired or suspended for their actions in these cases.
Indeed, North Port police officials ignore serious infractions and allow repeat offenders to remain on the force regardless of their conduct, according to a Herald Tribune investigation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in a recent case involving a wild, embarrassing party, an episode that led to two officers being accused of sexual battery. The case led to one officer’s suicide and another’s resignation, and now has the police chief fighting to save his job.
The majority of North Port officers perform their jobs with honor and distinction, but the newspaper’s review of 18 years’ worth of city records shows that many who committed serious offenses were allowed to return to duty without serious repercussions.
To analyze the city’s handling of misconduct, the newspaper examined the department’s internal affairs log, obtained more than a dozen reports and interviewed 15 former employees, current officials and law enforcement experts.
Among the findings:
Officers were allowed to remain on the force even after repeated investigations. Nineteen officers have been investigated three or more times for offenses ranging from unbecoming to burglary. Seven people were investigated five or more times four of whom are still on the force, including Officer Eric Stender. Stender has been investigated eight times for 11 violations of department rules. The allegations were sustained five times. The records do not contain details of the actual violations, other than to say he committed unsafe acts and had questions raised about his competency, courtesy and respect.
Even when there is confirmed misconduct, supervisors are often forgiving. More than a third of all sustained charges resulted in the lightest form of punishment, a written reprimand. Eighteen percent of the internal investigations led to a suspension or firing.
In one case, Officers John McKinney and Todd Choiniere were accused of entering a man’s home by cutting the screen of his lanai without a warrant or the homeowner’s consent to investigate a misdemeanor loud music complaint. The pair were accused of collaborating to omit certain details of their entry in their reports. McKinney received a written reprimand. Choiniere had already been terminated for an unrelated offense: handcuffing his wife and throwing her into their pool during a domestic fight.
The agency’s internal affairs data are in disarray. The cases are kept in a written log, key elements, such as outcomes and discipline, are missing from the records, complicating efforts to quickly determine how often an officer has been investigated or disciplined. It took the Herald Tribune about three hours to turn the written log into an electronic spreadsheet and conduct an analysis of the data.
While other police chiefs also allowed officers to return to duty after serious misconduct, the March party has put Chief Kevin Vespia in the crosshairs of the city manager, the City Commission and the public.
North Port has hired an outside agency to conduct a comprehensive review and analysis of Vespia’s department. City Manager Jonathan Lewis says he will use the results of that inquiry to evaluate the chief.
Vespia would not comment on internal affairs cases that happened before he took office and recognized that the party would bring extra scrutiny. But he defended the agency in an hourlong interview with the Herald Tribune and says recent events are not a reflection of the department.
are people, said Vespia, who has been with the agency since 1999. they make poor decisions. Our policy is pretty clear, but you can’t possibly be in the loop about all of your people. is not the first North Port chief to face criticism for his handling of misconduct, and internal affairs records are rife with questionable disciplinary practices by the city.
During his decade as chief, David Yurchuck fired three people including one who was reinstated by the city manager after he was fired for violating the department’s rules concerning truthfulness and honesty. Another officer, Eric Stender, was investigated four times over four years under Yurchuck’s tenure.
From 2006 to 2010, records show Chief Terry Lewis allowed one officer to resign after he came to work high on prescription pain pills and burglarized an elementary school where he worked as a security officer.
In 2009, another police officer, Sean Butcher, was allowed to resign amid an investigation. He had been accused of shopping, filling multiple prescriptions for the same ailment. His conduct was not reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, according to the agency’s database. Triplett resigned after he showed other officers a video of a woman exposing her breasts to a police camera.
And Officer Michael Shinsky was suspended for eight hours in 2009 but allowed to use a vacation day in lieu of lost pay after he started a fight outside a Tampa bar and was hospitalized with a broken jaw.
According to state data, none of these officers was reported to the FDLE for further investigation.
The law says that police departments are required to report all serious misconduct character violations to a state board that oversees officers’ certifications.