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A Times Editorial

Public must judge handling of officers' missteps

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

There is one person in Citrus County who may have been glad to see the flap develop in recent weeks over mandatory garbage collection: Sheriff Jeff Dawsy.

Not that he has any strong positions either way on trash service, but having that issue dominate headlines has diverted the public's attention from an embarrassing situation within his own agency.

Since late last fall, three serious lapses of judgment by longtime staffers have led to two of those officers being suspended and a third fired. For a sheriff who takes the reputation of his deparment very seriously, these have been troubling times.

While acknowledging that he is far from thrilled over the incidents, Dawsy this week explained the circumstances of each case and insisted that the offending officers were dealt with severely and appropriately.

It is up to the public to decide whether those assurances are sufficient given the circumstances of the three cases.

The first occurred on Nov. 28 when Detective Scott Grace was stopped for speeding at 4:15 a.m. on U.S. 19. Grace was off duty when another deputy paced him at 85 to 90 mph and saw him change lanes without signaling. Once stopped, Grace yelled and swore at the deputy and generally acted in such a way that a dispatcher overheard the commotion on the radio and wondered if the deputy was in trouble.

Grace was not issued a traffic citation for speeding, leaving the public to rightly wonder whether he had received favorable treatment because he wears a badge.

He did not escape punishment entirely, however. Grace eventually was suspended for two weeks in December for "conduct unbecoming of an officer."

The next incident took place on Dec. 29 when Deputy John Lloyd, also off duty, was observed speeding and driving dangerously on State Road 44 in Inverness. A deputy clocked him driving at 95 mph in a 50 mph zone and passing other motorists in the turning lane. The time was 1:50 a.m., significant because Lloyd told the deputy, when he eventually stopped, that he was trying to get to a convenience store to buy beer before the 2 a.m. close of alcohol sales.

The Sheriff's Office accused Lloyd of "conduct unbecoming an officer" and "unlawful conduct offenses: noncriminal violations" and began the process of firing him. At his request, Lloyd was allowed to quit.

Unlike Grace, though, Lloyd received two traffic citations totaling $364.

The most recent case, which has received little attention, involved Sgt. Donald Lestinsky, the head of the sheriff's aviation unit, who was accused of taking a female friend on unauthorized ride-alongs in his patrol car and improperly using an agency cell phone.

More troubling was Lestinsky's admission that he had planned to take his friend on an unauthorized ride in the sheriff's department helicopter. Bad weather, as opposed to good judgment, led him to cancel the joyride.

Lestinsky was suspended without pay for one week and will serve a year of in-house probation.

While each case is an isolated event, there are a number of disturbing commonalities.

All three officers, for example, are longtime employees. Their missteps cannot be chalked up to rookie mistakes. Also, the timing is worth noting. Lestinsky was stepping out of line between August and December of last year. Grace was caught speeding and acting inappropriately in November. And Lloyd went on his reckless beer run in December.

It is safe to assume that all three of these senior employees were aware of the reactions both from Dawsy as well as from the public as each instance became public. Why, then, did they not pay closer attention to their behavior?

Coincidentally, all of this was occurring during a heated election season during which Dawsy held an unprecedented news conference to defend the integrity of the agency from an attack by a County Commission candidate. Surely, the sheriff's pronouncement caught the attention of the agency's employees.

In the cases of both Grace and Lloyd, fellow deputies were in the cars with them. Shouldn't they have said something to their brother officers about slowing down and obeying the traffic laws?

Most troubling is the element of public danger involved in the cases. In two of them, law officers were speeding on major highways, putting themselves, their passengers and anyone else on the road at that time in danger. In the third case, the agency's helicopter, a vital tool for law enforcement especially during these times of terrorist threats, was nearly taken out of service for a jaunt.

Now, let's put these situations into context.

These are three officers out of nearly 300 employees of the sheriff's department, or a mere 1 percent of the force. That means 99 percent of the personnel were doing what's expected of them.

And among the three officers in trouble, you have many, many years of quality service to the community. Grace, for example, is a crisis negotiator, among his other duties. He's described by an agency personnel official as "an exemplary employee." Lloyd has been a solid deputy for many years, according to Dawsy. And Lestinsky has had exactly zero disciplinary actions in his 18 years with the department.

When the sheriff describes these incidents as hiccups by good employees, it is an accurate assessment.

Everyone in the department feels the sting when one of their brethren gets in trouble, and Dawsy noted that several deputies "were peeved off" at the actions of their fellow officers. They were reassured, he said, when the offenders were punished.

The sheriff said he, too, was angry, and he reiterated to his employees that these sorts of actions would not be tolerated. Was the message received? "You'd better believe it," Dawsy insisted.

Dawsy also made the valid observation that in each case fellow officers brought the offenses to the attention of supervisors instead of ignoring them or trying to cover them up. That, he said, is in keeping with his mantra that the integrity of the agency is paramount.

Just as it would be wrong to characterize these cases as a trend, it would be irresponsible to brush them aside. Perspective is necessary as the public must look at the history of the agency under Dawsy's watch. There has not been a pattern of widespread misbehavior within the ranks.

Law enforcement personnel are always held to a high standard of personal conduct, for obvious reasons. Sheriff Dawsy is comfortable with that because it demands no more of his people than he does. That's part of the territory, and he accepts it.

The public, while not being overly judgmental, has a duty to keep watch over its watchdogs. Time will tell whether these recent incidents are aberrations or a sign of bigger problems within the agency.

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