The Lost Patrol
By COLLINS CONNER
© St. Petersburg Times,
Here's a glimpse of the Florida Highway Patrol in action:
In the past 10 years, its performance has nose-dived. Drunken driving tickets dropped 39 percent, speeding tickets 40 percent.
Stolen cars recovered, way down.
While grieving families begged for answers, fatal crash investigations dragged on interminably. Last year, nearly seven out of 10 were not completed in the time the patrol's own regulations consider reasonable.
Troopers spent far less time on road patrol.
"I can tell you right now, it's embarrassing how few troopers are on the highways," said retired Col. Bobby Burkett, who used to direct the agency.
"If a person gets stopped by the patrol, I tell them they ought to get the officer to sign a piece of paper and they ought to keep it as an autograph, it's so rare."
For years, the brass at the highway patrol blamed every failing on a manpower shortage.
It became a mantra: We need 500 more troopers; we lose many of our officers to higher-paying agencies; our troopers are so busy they can only run from crash to crash.
In fact, the patrol has mismanaged its manpower. It doesn't have a shortage of troopers, it has a crisis of leadership.
The patrol's own leaders lost control of their officers and lost sight of their mission.
Honorable officers, the vast majority of the patrol's force, looked to their superiors for guidance. In too many cases, they got a bum steer.
"We seem to have a breakdown of our quality control in many areas," said Maj. Ron Getman, a member of the patrol's command staff until his retirement June 30.
"It all comes back to the first-line leaders not doing their jobs and the upper levels not holding them accountable for doing their jobs.
"We have shot ourselves in the foot. But it's an organizational bullet that we loaded ourselves."
Col. Charles C. Hall, who retired recently after three years running the patrol, said the improper conduct of some officers can be found in any large agency and does not reflect failures of supervision or management.
Acknowledging the drop in productivity, Hall said the statistics don't measure "the quality of performance and overall effectiveness" of the highway patrol. He cited the patrol's recent national awards for encouraging safety belt use and for its traffic safety program.
"As with any other progressive organization," he said in his written response to the St. Petersburg Times, "FHP must change with the needs and expectations of the people it serves and we pledge to continue doing just that."
Sleeping with the suspect
In September 1998, as Louis Rapisarda walked along the edge of Alt. U.S. 19 in Holiday, a drunken driver struck him from behind with such force that his skull was torn from his spine
Seven months into the investigation, patrol investigator Don Young still had not sent evidence to the crime lab for analysis. Prosecutors tried to get him moving; he didn't return their calls. In frustration, they hired an outside investigator to reconstruct the crash.
Rapisarda's mother, Phyllis Doughtie, was beside herself. "I don't understand how the FHP can get away with what they're doing," she said at the time.
A year after her son's death, prosecutors filed a simple DUI charge, a misdemeanor, against the driver, Melanie Bowie. The 23-year-old waitress had two DUI convictions in her past. The night she ran down Rapisarda, her blood-alcohol level registered 0.14, enough for her to be presumed impaired.
A year later, Ms. Doughtie learned other facts:
Danny Bowers, the first trooper on the scene, had questioned Bowie and said she didn't appear drunk. He drove her home in his patrol car.
Within days, they began a sexual relationship.
That sequence torments Rapisarda's mother:
"How could (Trooper Bowers) have looked at the body of my son and then think the things about (Bowie) that must have been on his mind?"
Here's another question: Why was Bowers still a trooper?
In his 11-year career, Bowers bungled four significant crash investigations -- in one hit-and-run, he never even went to the scene of the accident. Two of the botched cases occurred in four months, and, though the penalty is supposed to increase for repeated errors, Bowers was given a written reprimand both times.
Bowers also drove with a suspended license, smashed up a patrol car and was sent to drivers-ed class, but never got more than an eight-hour suspension.
In June 1999, nine months after Rapisarda was killed, Bowers responded to a crash call and wound up on a Florida Department of Law Enforcement surveillance tape, having a lengthy chat with a suspected drug dealer.
The patrol called the Rapisarda case "clearly unfortunate for all involved" and said it had been investigating Bowers for the FDLE incident.
Still, Bowers kept his job through that 11-month investigation. He was fired last December, just weeks after the Times reported his affair with Bowie.
Where the buck stops
Any organization struggles during times of change.
The highway patrol has been dealing with momentous change for two decades -- two management scandals, a discrimination lawsuit, court-ordered diversity and the growing influence of the police union.
In the face of all that, the patrol needed strong, steady leaders to unify the force and keep the agency focused.
Instead, many current and past officers say, the agency's top leaders dropped the ball in ways that affected the quality of recruits, the competence of their supervisors and, ultimately, the effectiveness of officers of every rank.
Col. Bobby Burkett's commendable efforts to diversify the force pitted the old guard against the new and eroded supervision and discipline -- an assessment Burkett "generally agrees" with.
Col. Ron Grimming's innovative attempts to modernize the agency splintered its focus, weakened performance and alienated the command staff. Grimming did not respond to three requests for interviews.
With one foot in retirement, Col. Charles C. Hall tackled few substantive issues, creating a vacuum of leadership in an agency suffering the aftermath of 20 tumultuous years. Hall disagreed, saying he had addressed racial profiling, seat belt use and officer training.
The buck ultimately stops with Fred O. Dickinson, for the past nine years the executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which provides civilian oversight of the FHP. In 1998, Grimming accused Dickinson of improper meddling in patrol management and multiple instances of unethical conduct.
Though a comptroller's investigation concluded that Dickinson interfered with a criminal investigation and gave sworn testimony that conflicted with that of others, Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet chose not to reprimand him.
Dickinson refused to be interviewed or to respond to four pages of written questions from the Times.
In June, Dickinson appointed a new director for the $157-million agency: Col. Chris Knight, a career patrolman who has the support of the troopers, the union and the command staff.
A lot rests on him.
"There needs to be a revitalization of the patrol," said retired Maj. Ed Hagler, "and, believe me, it doesn't boil up from the bottom, it comes down from the top."
The new recruit
The federal government had sued the patrol, pressuring it to diversify its mostly white, male force.
The agency did what many other uniformed forces did: It lowered its height and weight minimums and eased its strength and endurance tests. Where once the academy jettisoned recruits at the first sign of failure, instructors became more patient.
Hagler, who headed the highway patrol academy from 1987 to 1990, describes firearms qualification day, when trainees would shoot at targets, the brass casings of their spent bullets dropping to the ground.
"Say you had to shoot 75 or better," Hagler said. "Somebody would shoot 65 and you'd give them more ammo, and they still didn't make it, so you'd give them more ammo. The standing joke was: When the brass reaches up to their knees, they don't qualify if they haven't qualified by then.
"They did not lower standards, they threw the standards out the front door."
Ken Katsaris, a former academy instructor, said many of the new trainees had never served in the military and had never before held a gun, a huge change from the past.
Retired Trooper Ricky J. Peters, a by-the-book type who once ticketed a fire-engine driver for speeding back to the station, said the quality of some officers is discouraging.
"It's not just females. It's no particular race," Peters said. "It's that, when the patrol started cutting back on standards, it also started allowing less than credible, top-line, top-notch people.
"We've paid for it. We've had things happen in the patrol I thought I'd never see."
Col. Knight, the new highway patrol director, said the patrol didn't lower its standards, it faced a work force change seen everywhere.
"I would point you to a different society now," Knight said, "with a different set of values, a different mind-set, different expectations, a different work ethic."
Trooper Patricia Phillips saw both eras, old and new.
Hired in 1977, she was the patrol's first female officer; the agency cut her no slack.
"I had to box the guys," Phillips said. "I had to run as far and jump as high and shoot as well. I knew I'd earned my position on the Florida Highway Patrol when I put that uniform on."
Now, Phillips said, there's a new breed of officer: "They've got people threatening to sue, people crying, people whining.
"To me, it's like: "Get over it!"'
To maintain professionalism with its changed work force, fair and consistent discipline was a must. Burkett tried to standardize discipline and was criticized as inflexible.
Now, like so much else in the patrol, discipline varies by troop and by supervisor.
Agency files include officers who kept their jobs though they ignored subpoenas, solicited a prostitute, beat their wives, lied under oath or falsified records -- behavior that could send an ordinary person to jail.
Conversely, the patrol targeted some officers and made their lives hell.
Capt. Ibrahim Egeli of Miami was accused last year of intimidating and harassing subordinates. He was removed from duty and had to surrender his uniforms, his badge, his car. Patrol investigators recommended demotion, transfer and suspension without pay for 40 hours.
But when patrol Maj. Jimmy Wright reviewed their evidence, he found the complaints were old, vague, unsubstantiated and could "easily be considered retaliatory." Egeli was returned to active duty.
It's not easy to discipline an officer. Thanks to the union, such matters are typically negotiated or sent to arbitration, a safeguard to the officer being disciplined, but a hassle to the supervisor.
Faced with likely union challenges, supervisors should handle discipline by the book. Often, they don't.
For instance, agency policy calls for increasing penalties on repeated mistakes. But some supervisors skirt the policy by describing the same offense in different terms: They call a violation "negligence" one time but "failure to perform duties" the next.
Why would they do that?
"Part bureaucracy, part lack of training, part lack of commitment to consistency and some apathy on behalf of supervisors who really don't want to cause harm to their employees" by giving them increasing punishment, said Getman, the former member of the patrol command staff.
Dealing with unions, women and minorities made patrol leaders skittish, said retired Cpl. Stephen Rickey.
"The department was worried about civil liability and litigation," he said. "Our discipline is not uniform, and it's not uniform because of the fear of going through the hassle of black troopers' punishment versus women's punishment versus white troopers' punishment versus Hispanic troopers' punishment.
"Instead of staying steadfast, the patrol started going backward."
As a result, Rickey said, conduct deteriorated: "When you don't have discipline, what falls is attitude and integrity."
Officer after officer told the Times that uneven discipline torpedoed morale. Col. Hall denied there was a problem.
Hall, who retired as highway patrol director on June 30, said the patrol "uses established disciplinary action standards to determine the level of discipline. The process is documented in policy and procedure and is monitored for consistency."
Burkett's push for diversity increased women and minorities from 10 percent of the force in 1982 to 27 percent in 1992.
Today they make up 32.8 percent of the force -- but account for 55 percent of those who resign under investigation or are fired for cause. The agency was not aware of the disparity, nor could Knight explain it.
The vast majority of women and minorities on the force occupy the bottom rung of the agency's ladder. Burkett tried to help them move up by cutting the seniority requirement for promotions.
Now, a trooper can advance to investigator, to sergeant, to lieutenant, to captain in half a dozen years, with little real management experience.
Col. Knight, the new director, is a product of the agency's rapid-promotions system. "I've never felt longevity was a factor in competency," he said.
To avoid bias, the agency eliminated subjectivity from performance evaluations. Officers are judged on things like getting to work on time and filling in all the blanks in their reports.
"You can't say if the reports are of good quality, because that's an opinion," Getman said.
In the hands of inexperienced managers, performance deteriorated.
Knight acknowledged the evaluation problem and said he might change the system.
The Legislature made supervisors' jobs more difficult in 1992, when, pressed by the union, it banned ticket quotas as a performance measure.
Consequently, Getman said, "Supervisors have almost no control over quantity or quality."
Look at the daily accounting of Cpl. Lesten L. Douberley Jr.
In an eight-week period this year, Douberley issued no speeding tickets, no seat belt tickets and made no DUI arrests, though he patrolled an average of 100 miles a day.
On the activity logs examined by the Times, Douberley reported doing the exact same thing on 52 of 62 days: On each, he spent precisely two hours answering calls for assistance from exactly eight people.
Douberley, 59, did not respond to a certified letter from the Times. The patrol didn't comment on Douberley's performance, except to say heretired in good standing in March.
Because first-level supervisors form the candidate pool for higher ranks, weak leaders worked their way up the organization's ladder, said Getman, who expressed what many other officers told the newspaper.
"I don't know if you can ever connect the dots. But the surface problems are all influenced by the deep, imbedded difficulties and organizational decisions made long ago that have seeped their way to the top."
Here's how a decision by a first-line supervisor destroyed a major drug case.
Luckily, the FHP happened by
After hatching a drug deal on May 1, 1998, three men tooled down I-4 with a trunk full of cocaine. Midtrip, the engine of their Lincoln died.
Who should come to their rescue but Trooper Doug Strickland.
Strickland told the men to check the trunk for a broken fuel switch. When the driver balked, Strickland let loose a police dog. Its ears perked right up.
The events sounded suspicious to, of all people, the prosecutor who got the case, according to the periodical Florida Defender.
Assistant State Attorney Brad Copley knew the odds were slim that a drug-laden car would break down. It was even more unlikely that a trooper would happen by, he said.
"I mean, the last time I was broken down on the highway, I'd still be there if someone hadn't stopped besides a trooper," Copley testified.
The truth was, Strickland was part of a highway patrol drug team working with the FBI and the DEA. The suspect's car was rigged so federal agents could shut off its engine with the flip of a switch. They then sent Strickland to "discover" the drugs.
Strickland testified that he withheld those facts in his arrest affidavit and that patrol drug teams routinely withheld such information in their court filings. He said his supervisors knew about it.
When U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins learned of the omission, she practically breathed fire.
"To conceal the true facts surrounding an arrest in an affidavit submitted to a judicial officer is reprehensible," Jenkins said.
There was a lot at stake -- three suspected traffickers and 220 pounds of cocaine. Prosecutors dropped the charges.
Judge Jenkins wasn't alone in her outrage.
Pasco County Judge Robert Cole, who said the troopers' conduct "strikes at the very heart of the system," fired off a letter to Hall, then the director of the patrol, urging him to "vigorously investigate" and "take appropriate action" if the allegations proved true.
The patrol's subsequent 16-day investigation found the agency suffered from a "failure of policy," and that was that.
As for taking "appropriate action" -- the patrol never disciplined Strickland, nor did it punish the supervisors who approved his conduct.
Ron Grimming took command of the patrol in 1993, the union favorite and the first outsider to run the agency. Under him, the highway patrol lost sight of its mission.
He brought helicopters, community policing squads, a car-theft hotline, defibrillators.
He took troopers off the road and put them in special units, angering Florida sheriffs who had to pick up the slack.
Grimming beat the drum for more troopers, using a Northwestern University staffing formula to prove the agency needed to add 500 troopers to its 1,650 sworn officers.
But the formula is full of holes.
It doesn't credit the sheriffs' work, which accounts for 40 percent of county crash investigations and 63 percent of the traffic enforcement.
It also doesn't weigh the highway patrol's own staffing decisions.
Look at how patrol leaders, claiming to be desperately short-handed, conducted the agency in just the past three years:
Last year, the patrol could have hired 25 troopers with the $1.2-million it shifted from salaries to operations and expenses. The patrol said the money was spent on gasoline, which had risen in price, and other unexpected expenses.
The highway patrol also could have hired 14 troopers with unspent salary money returned to the state.
Blame the Legislature for another 60 vacancies; the patrol used that salary money to pay employees for the leave they earned but did not take, an expense the state doesn't fund.
At the end of June, the FHP had 200 trooper vacancies, 20 percent of the 1,000-member road patrol.
Between those vacancies and the reassigned road patrol, only about 650 troopers are left to patrol 67 counties, an average in each county of fewer than three per shift. It's even worse if someone is on vacation, on sick leave or in training.
"It takes five people to staff one position, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Getman said. "If you have three people, you can't do it."
Knight knows there are manpower problems.
"I think what you'll find is that we have about 40 percent of the troopers carrying 75 to 80 percent of the workload," he said. "That's our morale problem."
The highway patrol mantra -- that the patrol suffers from low pay, high migration and an overload of crash investigations -- is simply untrue.
Of more than 400 law enforcement agencies in Florida, the highway patrol's starting salary is the seventh highest. The patrol is not losing officers to other forces at a rate greater than the 10 next-largest policing agencies. Statewide, troopers average 1.4 crashes a day, counting fender benders, where they don't even write a report.
In his written response to the Times' questions, Hall said the number of tickets, arrests and hours patrolled dropped because the agency now has a "multi-dimensional service philosophy." He also cited the loss of federal dollars for speed limit enforcement.
Hall said that the patrol didn't have the money for more than one academy a year and that it sends officers to events like spring break or the Daytona 500 because those events create "a public safety issue."
Knight took over July 1. "I don't dispute the leadership problems," he said, "but I prefer to move forward."
The new director said he intends to refocus the agency on traffic enforcement and to improve its discipline, supervision and communication with its officers.
He put a freeze on promotions until he can determine if more supervisors are needed. He promised to return officers to road patrol.
"I can be demanding," he said, "but demanding is not a bad thing. I know the problems. I know the players. I know how to move forward.
"All I ask is that you give us time."
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Matthew Waite contributed to this report.
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