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A Times Editorial

With a badge comes a higher standard

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

Two recent cases involving off-duty sheriff's office employees driving dangerously on the roads have led to concerns in the community about whether a dual system of justice is at work.

The question being raised is whether the officers received special treatment. Would civilians have been treated the same way for the same offenses? It's a legitimate concern given the details of the instances.

In one case, a detective was spotted speeding and weaving through traffic on U.S. 19 early in the morning. After being stopped by a deputy he began yelling and swearing loudly enough that the deputy reached for his sidearm and the dispatcher, who could hear the commotion over the deputy's radio, felt the deputy was in danger.

The second incident involved a deputy racing to a gas station to beat the 2 a.m. cutoff for beer sales. He was clocked at nearly 100 mph on State Road 44 and he, too, was driving recklessly, passing at least one vehicle in the center turn lane. When stopped by a deputy, the off-duty officer asked if his actions could be overlooked.

The rowdy detective was given a verbal warning. No arrest for his threatening actions, not even a traffic ticket. The beer-craving deputy received two tickets but neither he nor his passenger, another off-duty officer who apparently slept through the whole incident, were given sobriety tests.

The public, naturally, is asking: What if it had been me? Would I have received such generosity and understanding? Or do just those with badges get the kid-glove treatment?

Police work is not an exact science and each case is handled according to its unique circumstances and the judgment of the officers involved. There is no way to say definitively that these officers received special treatment.

Still, it is not hard for civilian drivers to imagine facing stiffer fines and criminal penalties for having committed the same infractions. Therein lies the public's concerns.

Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, none too happy with the back-to-back embarrassments, already has punished the offenders in-house. The detective was suspended (for less than a week), while the deputy was allowed to resign (being fired would have made it harder to hook on with another agency).

Civilians, too, might face similar punishments from their employers following such dangerous actions. Especially if they had been arrested.

So, the question remains: Has justice been served?

There is little doubt that law enforcement officers treat each other differently than they do the rest of the public.

Call it a perk of the job, a special understanding among those who put their lives on the line each shift. The public, for the most part, accepts this.

When the action in question involves endangering the public, such as speeding and reckless driving on major highways, the level of public forgiveness shrinks.

That's not being antipolice; it's being pro-public safety.

Dawsy and virtually all law enforcement professionals understand that.

They also accept that they are held to a higher standard of conduct because of the special authority that society confers upon them when it gives them a gun and a badge.

There is ample room for debate in both of these cases as to whether the off-duty officers walked away with lighter punishments than they would have received had they not been cops.

It's a question that will remain unanswered as both cases are now considered closed.

But they serve as reminders to all law enforcement personnel that the public, while applauding the great work that police do every day, insists that the officers obey the laws that they are empowered to enforce.

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