Florida Police Accused of Misconduct Given Second Chances
Joseph Floyd could be the poster child for the ills behind the lack of accountability and low standards in hiring Florida police officers and prison guards, both of which are considered law enforcement officers under state law.
The Bay County Sheriff’s Office, the Sneads Police Department, and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office either terminated or pushed Floyd into resigning due to misconduct. “A background investigation would have revealed that Floyd demonstrated that he did not have the necessary characteristics traits to be a good officer,” the grand jury foreman wrote when Floyd was indicted in 2012.
But the Crestview Police Department hired Floyd, and it eventually promoted him to major. During a 2013 trial on racketeering charges, witnesses, such as fellow officers, testified that Floyd engaged in activities, which the judge described as causing “irreparable” harm, that showed he had no regard for the rule of law. Those witnesses made accusations of bribery, excessive use of force, false arrests, falsifying police reports, planting of drugs, sexual assault, and intimidating directives to other officers.
“The volume of the evidence presented to the jury was remarkable, astounding really,” said Judge Michael Flowers when rejecting a suggestion his sentence be the minimum sentence and instead imposing a 12-year prison sentence.
“He ruined lives,” special prosecutor Russ Edgar was quoted as saying. “He perverted justice, and he did everything a police officer should never do. He used his badge to break the law. He had no respect for it, no observance for it in these incidents.”
Floyd’s conduct resulted in at least one lawsuit settlement. Court records show that the City of Crestview paid $75,000 to a woman who lost her unborn child when Floyd intentionally rammed her car with his police cruiser, causing the woman’s vehicle to flip multiple times.
Allowing Florida officers who have engaged in misconduct to continue their careers is not unusual, according to a report in the April 2020 Yale Law Journal by Duke University Professor Ben Grunwald and University of Chicago Professor John Rappaport. Their study found that since 1988 thousands of officers who were terminated or forced into resignation due to misconduct were given second chances. They comprised about 2% of officers employed during that period, which translated to about 800 of these officers working each year. The study found they were twice as likely to be fired again and 75% more likely to be accused of a serious offense.
The Naples Daily News and The News-Press used employment records to conduct an analysis of the work history of decertified officers. “The 505 law enforcement and corrections officers who went on to commit another serious offense after being forced out for misconduct from another agency make up about 6% of the more than 8,000 decertifications since 1990,” the analysis found.
Further, it found “[a]t least 433 of the complaints against tarnished officers that led to decertification were criminal in nature, though not all of the offenses were prosecuted.” It found the offenses included drug possession, sales, or DUI – 20%; assault or battery – 13%; theft or robbery – 12%; false statements or falsifying records – 11%; sex crimes – 8%; and homicide or manslaughter – 2%.
The analysis determined that cities and sheriff’s offices were sued 24 times since 1990 due to the actions of those officers. That figure did not include claims that may have been resolved before litigation was initiated.
To be hired as a law enforcement officer, Florida law requires agencies to ensure officers are of “good moral character.” What that constitutes is left to the discretion of the agency, said Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson Greta Plessinger. State law does establish that moral character violations include misdemeanors, regardless of prosecution, that include assault, battery, possession of drugs, DUI, theft, making false statements, falsifying records, exposure of sexual organs, and prostitution. Noncriminal offenses such as sex on duty, excessive use of force, subverting testing or training, and false statements in the employment application process also are considered moral character violations.
Once a person is certified as a law enforcement officer, it is not mandated that a violation of the moral character code lead to decertification. CLN’s sister publication, Prison Legal News, has published numerous reports citing instances of prison guards who engaged in misconduct such as excessive use of force. In several of those cases, the guard was promoted despite that misconduct.
The Sunny Isles Police Department in 2006 gave Raimundo Atesiano “an offer to resign from Sunny Isles in exchange for the state attorney’s office declining to file criminal charges after he admitted to forging the signature of a suspect on a promise-to-appear affidavit, according to an internal affairs investigation completed by the agency,” the Naples Daily News reported.
The Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission sent a letter to Atesiano. “‘The Panel decided to take no disciplinary action against your certification, and that the profession would be best served by allowing you to learn from your mistakes,’ wrote the then-chairman of the Probable Cause Panel of the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission.”
Two years later, Atesiano was hired by the Biscayne Park Police Department and became its chief. In 2018, Atesiano pleaded guilty to directing officers to frame people through false arrests and claimed false confessions to clear unsolved burglary cases. He was sentenced to three years in prison for that scheme.
“Putting an arrest statistic above the rights of an innocent man instead of working to protect all of our citizens undermines the safety goals of every Miami-Dade police department,” said State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “Miami-Dade’s residents deserve honesty and integrity, qualities the Raimundo Atesiano deliberately failed to deliver.”
Two victims of Atesiano’s crime reached confidential settlements with the officers who were instructed to make false arrests. While the conviction of Clarens Desrouleaux was vacated by the court, he served five years in prison before he was deported to Haiti, causing separation from his family, reported the Naples Daily News, citing court records.
Early warning signs of trouble are often ignored to allow officers to continue their career. After he was accused of domestic violence, Jimmy Dac Ho was fired by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. In quick order, he was hired as a police officer at Florida Atlantic University (“FAU”). While there, complaints of excessive force were made against him. In one case, FAU reached a settlement with a student who sued after a false arrest that resulted in surgery for a torn rotator cuff.
Finally, FAU fired Ho in 2011. That occurred only after he fatally shot 29-year-old Sheri Carter. Ho is serving two life sentences for offenses, including murder. FAU reached a settlement with Carter’s mother.
The fact that officers who are terminated or forced into resignation due to misconduct indicates that Florida is failing in ensuring immoral persons cannot retain law enforcement certification. “What I found is it is a terrible system for hiring officers,” Walt Zalisko, the former Oak Hill police officer and police practice expert, told the Naples Daily News. “You can have an officer who’s been under investigation and resigns and it will say something like it was a voluntary separation. Cities will do that to avoid possible litigation down the road. We’ve seen officers who have changed departments eight times.”
So long as they retain certification, it seems a person intent on being a cop or prison guard just needs to keep trying different jurisdictions. Matthew Vandetti was rejected by at least nine other agencies before he was hired by the Clewiston Police Department in 2015 and the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office in 2018. Most agencies said the rejections were based on misconduct.
During pre-employment and polygraph tests, Vandetti admitted to at least ten vehicle burglaries, using drugs, soliciting prostitution, having sex with a minor, and inadvertently exposing himself. While Vandetti said most of those offenses occurred as a juvenile, “a Collier County Sheriff’s Office polygraph examiner noted ‘significant responses’ to questions about involvement in illegal activities, use of marijuana more than 20 times, and the sale of illicit drugs for profit after he became an adult,” the Naples Daily News reported. Both agencies that hired Vandetti were aware of the disclosures and 2003 polygraph report.
Impeachment evidence is part of the exculpatory evidence prosecutors must turn over to defendants to satisfy the Due Process Clause. To meet that obligation, 20 county prosecutor offices maintain a formal Brady/Giglio list of officers who have creditability issues. Nine of those offices listed “at least 32 officers [who] in the last decade were hired by another agency, including at least 11 officers who moved to other judicial circuits, after being placed on a list,” reported the Naples Daily News.
‘Near the Top’
Some experts, however, rate Florida’s certification process as top notch. “My general impression is that it’s near the top in terms of open records and state regulations on both requirements to be an officer,” said Michael Scott, an Arizona State University criminal justice professor and founding police chief of Florida’s Lauderhill Police Department. “It has both a decent certification and decertification process.”
Zalisko disagreed. He contends Florida is among the worst when it comes to basic requirements. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was reintroduced by House Democrats in February 2021, including the creation of a national registry of police misconduct and ending qualified immunity for law enforcement officers. The 2020 version passed the House but failed to advance in the Senate.
Calls for such a reform is “political grandstanding,” said Florida’s Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He said the Florida Sheriffs Association would oppose bills that involve a registry and reducing qualified immunity.
Source: Naples Daily News, CNN
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