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    A Times Editorial

    Proper handling of scandal can reassure public


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 2, 2002

    It is rare for scandal to touch the Clearwater Police Department. Now that it has, the good news is that people are being held accountable. So far the scandal has brought down three police officers and the city's personnel director.

    News stories in the last two weeks revealed that last year, a Clearwater Beach woman went to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement with allegations that three Clearwater police officers had engaged in sexual activity with her while on duty after responding to a call at her home in the spring of 2000.

    The woman, who has a history of mental problems, said she submitted to their advances when they were in uniform because she was not strong enough to fend them off, was intimidated and feared being sent to a mental health facility against her will. She claimed that one of the officers kept returning to her home while on and off duty for more than a year.

    FDLE investigated the woman's charges and informed Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein of their findings last October. Klein immediately authorized an internal affairs investigation of the allegations -- an investigation that took seven months to complete and produced hundreds of pages of documentation. At its conclusion, Klein was convinced his officers had sexually battered the woman, using their authority as police officers to obtain sexual favors.

    Klein, who does not have the authority to terminate employees, recommended that his bosses at the city fire all three officers.

    The two accused patrol officers, James Mehr and Anthony Pearn, denied the woman's accusations but quickly resigned after learning they would be fired by City Manager Bill Horne. Five-year veterans, they were the targets of the most serious allegations by the woman, who reported having simultaneous sex with the two men while they were on duty.

    Sgt. James Heinz, a 19-year veteran accused of briefly groping the woman, defended himself at a pre-termination hearing before Assistant City Manager Garry Brumback and convinced Brumback that he should not be fired. He will be allowed to work as a patrol officer, with no supervisory duties, until he gets in his 20 years and retires in January.

    Horne forced one of his department heads, city personnel director Paul O'Rourke, to resign last week after O'Rourke told the Times he did not agree with the discipline meted out against the officers. He did not believe the woman's allegations; he would not have disciplined any of the officers for sexual misconduct. O'Rourke, who normally decides how city employees will be disciplined, was overruled by the city manager, who does believe some of the woman's allegations. Now O'Rourke, who had received a glowing evaluation late last year, is history.

    Why is the woman's credibility even in question? Isn't this akin to that much-criticized technique of putting a rape victim "on trial" in a courtroom?

    Not in this case. The woman's history of mental illness includes psychotic episodes, hospitalizations for treatment of manic depression and the use of strong psychotropic drugs. In addition, the investigations uncovered some indications that she abused alcohol and might use illegal drugs. The woman's account of the officers' visits to her home was not exactly the same every time she told it, leading some to conclude she was making it up.

    The woman's history is reason to take extra steps to verify her account, but not reason to declare her a liar. To their credit, both the FDLE and the Police Department's Office of Professional Standards apparently went to great lengths to substantiate her allegations.

    Anyone reading the investigative report with an open mind would conclude that, though there is no physical evidence of the sexual activity, there is other evidence supporting the woman's story that something was going on from April 2000 to October 2001. Neighbors reported seeing police cruisers at her home for extended periods at all hours of the night -- even an entire night. Her brother said he saw an officer visit her during the night. Friends testified that the woman told them about being harassed by police officers for sexual favors. The Police Department's own dispatch records confirmed that the officers were sent to her home on some of the occasions she recalled.

    Perhaps most damning of all, the woman could describe a tattoo on Mehr's back that was covered by his uniform and the type of underwear worn by Pearn.

    There is no evidence at all that the investigation is, as Mehr's attorney has charged, "a witch hunt." Because of the victim's mental state and the lack of physical evidence, prosecutors and the FDLE concluded that they could not make criminal charges stick against the officers involved. But the police chief and the city manager weighed the evidence and believed there was more truth than fiction in the victim's account. The action they have taken since leaves no doubt what will happen to any police officer they find guilty of such misconduct in the future.

    There are still questions that need to be answered by the city. If the woman's account is true, how were police officers able to disappear from duty for hours at a time, and how did this activity go on for months without them being caught? Are officers not held accountable for their time?

    Are there others in the department who knew about or even participated in the activity at the woman's Clearwater Beach home who have not been investigated and disciplined? Is it clear among the department's rank and file that, while officers need to look out for each other on the job, allowing suspicion of criminal or immoral behavior by fellow officers to go unreported is a dereliction of duty?

    Any time scandal occurs in a police department, its image is sullied. Klein, long known as a chief who sets high standards of behavior for his officers, and Horne, who with his ousting of O'Rourke and other senior employees is building a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, can limit the damage by standing by their discipline of the officers and answering the lingering questions about this case. Doing so will help to reassure the public.

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