2 officers fired for inappropriate behavior

They are accused of belching over their radios and sexually harassing a female colleague. Others are also disciplined.

Published June 17, 2006

TAMPA - Two Tampa police officers accused of belching over their radios, watching a pornographic video at work and habitually joking about homosexual sex were fired Friday after an internal investigation into a female officer's sexual harassment complaint.

Officers David K. Duncan, 28, and Ryan D. Sigler, 24, were the only ones who lost their jobs over the charges. But reprimands for the behavior extended to high-ranking officers:

nSgt. Gene Strickland, 49, the squad leader overseeing Duncan, Sigler and others, was demoted to detective in the forfeiture division, for allowing the behavior to continue even after witnessing it.

nMaj. George McNamara, 46, then-District 3 commander who has since transferred to oversee criminal investigations, received a permanent letter of reprimand. Department leaders cited him for "unacceptable delay" in processing the internal affairs complaints involving the squad.

nOfficer Gregory E. Cotner, 30, who investigators said "admittedly participated in the sexually charged conversation and horseplay" with Duncan and Sigler was suspended for eight days.

Assistant Police Chief Jane Castor also wrote letters disciplining District 2 supervisors Capt. Russell Marcotrigiano and Lt. Jill Kwiatkowski for failing to adequately address reports about the behavior of Strickland's squad.

"We have an obligation and a duty to protect our officers and our employees, and to ensure that the message is clear," said Maj. Bob Guidara, who replaced McNamara as District 3 commander last fall. "This type of behavior will not and cannot be condoned or tolerated."

Concerns about the officers first came to light after Officer Martha Gearity, 32, filed an internal complaint stating that for eight months on the squad, beginning in 2004, she was subjected to crude and profane behavior by her fellow officers.

According to the investigation, the officers, members of a plainclothes squad targeting street crime in east and central Tampa, passed gas and belched over the radio system, sometimes preventing other officers from communicating.

They made jokes about homosexual sex and bowel movements, even continuing the behavior after a supervisor, Cpl. David B. Watt, told them to stop.

Gearity said she learned from another officer that Sigler at one point got behind her as she was filling out paperwork on the hood of a car and simulated a sex act, leaving Duncan and Sigler giggling.

Guidara said he believes the disciplinary measures doled out by police Chief Steve Hogue and his executive staff are fair. And he expects they send a strong message to employees, as well as sexual harassment victims like Gearity, that the force takes such allegations seriously.

"She's shown a lot of strength in this situation," Guidara said of Gearity. "She allowed herself to be subjected to this behavior for a longer period of time than she should have because she was trying to be like all the other guys. ... It was tough for her to bring this to the surface."

In addition to the sexual harassment complaint, TPD's Internal Affairs Division investigated and disciplined members of the squad on three other matters, including two shootings and an Ybor City traffic stop.

On Dec. 7, 2004, Strickland and Watt were part of an undercover drug sting when a suspect pulled a BB gun. Both officers pulled their guns. Watt fired, but missed. The two were reprimanded for violating TPD policy by using their personal weapons.

And Duncan and Strickland were investigated for a July 10, 2005, incident in which Duncan exchanged gunfire with a wanted man. Strickland was wounded in the leg in that shooting but received four days suspension because they tried to arrest the man outside city limits.

Investigators also found that on April 30, 2005, Sigler, Duncan, Cotner and Officer Sean Stuart violated TPD's standard of conduct by trading curses and insults with their subject before tasering and arresting him when he complained he was being pulled over for being black.

Stuart, who is white, made a comment to the driver about being born in Africa. Sigler, Stuart and Cotner were orally reprimanded for that incident. Duncan received a disciplinary note in his file. Strickland was also reprimanded for failing to intervene in the traffic stop.

Guidara said he believes the disciplinary actions were appropriate to the offenses. But as he talked about the matter, he singled out the department's treatment of Strickland.

"Sgt. Strickland has a long distinguished record with this organization," Guidara said. "He was demoted ... not because he engaged in this (vulgar) behavior but because he had difficulty dealing with it. Not everyone is cut out to be a supervisor."

In his first five years with TPD, Strickland received 14 commendations, two minor disciplinary actions and outstanding to above-average ratings on evaluations.

After TPD released information about the sexual harassment charge, public records revealed that in May 2005, Strickland told his supervisors that he directed his squad to manipulate traffic signals so that officers could keep the lights red long enough to determine whether cars were stolen.

Cotner and Duncan joined the department at the end of 1999. Sigler has been a Tampa police officer for three years. Strickland was hired in 1991. And Watt has been with the force more than 21 years.

In 2000, Duncan fatally shot a 16-year-old after ordering the youth out of a stolen car. He was cleared of any wrongdoing by the department.

Though Watt was named in the original sexual harassment investigation, department leaders determined he did take action to try to put a stop to the behavior, TPD spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. Watt was not disciplined in that matter.