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TV report on police bent truth, suit says

Three Tampa officers claim the WFTS-Ch. 28 story implied that they are "bad cops."

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published January 4, 2004

TAMPA - A WFTS-Ch. 28 expose in May tackled a classic public interest issue: Tampa Police Department employees said promotions were doled out through a good old boy network; friendship counted more than performance.

The television program had a catchy title, "Bad Cops, Bad Promotions," and mentioned specific promotions to illustrate its point.

In December, three of the promoted police officers sued in Hillsborough Circuit Court, saying the ABC affiliate invaded their privacy by portraying them in a false light.

The series included statements that "there was a need to get corrupt officers out of TPD and to have officers with integrity and street smarts," according to the lawsuit. By weaving those facts and statements together, the station implied that the three plaintiffs were bad cops, corrupt and dishonest, the suit alleges.

Palm Harbor attorney Mark Herdman, who represents the officers, said he filed a false light suit rather than a libel suit, because "the statements, in and of themselves, had a degree of truth."

Under libel law, the truth is always a defense.

"What's false is the way they structured the story," Herdman said. "They made them out as a bad cop. They implied my guys got promoted as a result of a good old boy network. It's absolutely false. If a good old boy network existed, my guys had nothing to do with it."

The plaintiffs - Officers Keith O'Connor, Mary O'Connor and Paul Lusczynski - were not trouble-free.

Lusczynski once received a letter of counseling after a confrontation in an Ybor City bar. Keith O'Connor was arrested in 1995 for driving under the influence, which later was reduced to reckless driving. O'Connor's wife, Mary, who was in the car, was suspended after she exchanged words with the arresting officer.

Each of the three later were promoted. Herdman said the totality of their records shows that the promotions were deserved.

A followup show by the station suggested that the "Bad Cop" expose kept the three officers from further promotion, the suit alleges. In fact, the suit says, the three officers had not served long enough in their current rank to be eligible for promotion.

WFTS news director Bill Berra did not return a call for comment.

[Last modified January 4, 2004, 01:16:08]


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