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Chief conflicts

In police Chief Goliath Davis' 3 1/2-year tenure, arrests have gone up and crime has gone down. But amid changes in the department, complaints and lawsuits have emerged. Many blame Davis, saying he has played favorites and been discriminatory.

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Detective Tonia Nave was in the middle of interviewing a girl who accused a St. Petersburg pastor of molesting her.

As Nave darted between police interview rooms, her boss called her aside. After four years and 450 cases on the sex crimes squad, Nave was told she was a street cop again. She was so upset that another detective finished the interview.

The transfer came three days after Nave testified about a hostile work environment in the department. She did not take the new assignment sitting down. This summer, she sued.

In the coming months, jurors in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties could hear Nave's story, as well as accounts from six other police officers and a civilian investigator -- all of whom have sued the city, claiming retaliation or racial discrimination.

Ten lawsuits have been filed since the 1997 appointment of St. Petersburg police Chief Goliath Davis III. Many of the employees blame Davis for their troubles.

In addition to the state and federal lawsuits, a complaint of unfair labor practice is pending at the Florida Public Employee Relations Commission, and two cases are being weighed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Legal bills are mounting. To fight one lawsuit, taxpayers already have paid Tampa attorney Thomas M. Gonzalez about $60,000. If the city loses all pending cases, it could pay judgments totaling at least $1-million.

"I don't like it, but it's part of doing business in this city," said Mayor David J. Fischer, who appointed Davis.

Is Davis, the city's first black police chief, the victim of a conspiracy, stymied at every turn as he changes the face of the department? Is he acting on a vendetta, weeding out critics who supported his arch enemy, former white police Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger? Or is Davis making decisions based on race and friendship rather than merit, as the union has alleged?

It depends on whom you talk to in this city of 242,690 people.

To defenders, Davis is a man of integrity, under attack by malcontents for holding officers responsible for misconduct. Detractors say Davis has gone unchallenged, surrounding himself with administrators who will not question him and creating a ring of fear-based loyalty.

"People in St. Pete do not want to accept the fact about how vindictive this man is," said Officer Ron Adams, a 25-year veteran who retired in April amid an internal-affairs investigation. "Once he decides he is going to go after you, even if it was 20 or 30 years ago, you can forget it. You have no future in that department."

The department's top brass characterize the police plaintiffs as disgruntled employees whose only avenue is litigation because they lost appeals at the city level.

"They're looking to throw mud," said Jeff Rink, Davis' executive assistant.

Davis has burned at least 300 hours of personal and work time preparing for court proceedings, Rink said.

"Think of where we could have been if I could have stayed focused on work and not answering all the allegations that were false and fictitious," Davis said. "It's been a major distraction."

Fending off issues of race, discrimination

The racial overtones linger like ghosts in the station's halls.

Davis was born and raised in St. Petersburg and began his police career here 27 years ago as a patrolman. He clashed with Curtsinger, who became chief in 1990 after a long career at the Los Angeles Police Department.

Under Curtsinger, Davis was moved from supervising patrol officers to overseeing internal police administration.

In a recent interview, Curtsinger said one reason he took Davis off the street was that he received a complaint that Davis hindered enforcement duties involving the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, long known for its harsh criticism of police conduct in the black community.

Davis said that complaint was investigated and was unsubstantiated.

As assistant chief of administration, Davis was asked by Curtsinger to administer a cultural diversity program. Curtsinger said he suspended the program after white officers complained that Davis made them out to be racists. The city and department grew racially polarized.

Racial slurs showed up on bathroom walls after Curtsinger was fired in 1992: "No n----- should have power." Curtsinger was fired by Don McRae, who is black and was the interim city manager. Residents marched and petitioned the city to rehire Curtsinger.

"All of this boils down to the fact that I was getting ready to demote Davis down to police officer, and when I let it be known in City Hall, they fired me," Curtsinger said.

City Council member Bea Griswold's husband held a seat on the council when Curtsinger was police chief. Her home telephone rang a lot more then, she said.

"It was just highly charged," she said. "And there may be a perception of some of that in reverse now, but . . . by comparison, I would say that Chief Davis' reign has been pretty calm."

Crime is down in St. Petersburg, as it is in much of the country. Drug and prostitution arrests are up. Search warrants are up. And citizen complaints of police misconduct are down, according to city figures.

Under Davis, the department has undergone major changes. He also was the driving force behind a drug treatment center in the city.

Three invitation-only retreats led to reorganization and kudos from neighborhood leaders who criticized the chief's management. Davis rewrote a decade-old policy, making evasive or misleading statements by personnel grounds for termination.

"He holds us to the fire," Maj. Reggie Oliver said. "A lot of the hype you're hearing about Chief Davis all falls back to his drive to make people better, to succeed. Prior chiefs didn't set the same standards as high as Chief Davis does."

Eight years ago, 66 of the 433 sworn police officers were black; seven were supervisors. Now, 76 of the 497 sworn officers are black; 15 are supervisors. Under Davis and Curtsinger, about 15 percent of the officers were black. About 19 percent of the city's population is black. Davis' tenure is dotted by tense standoffs with the union, the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association.

The union has appealed most of his disciplinary decisions, most notably the arbitration of Officer Ray Craig. Craig was fired after accusing Davis of hindering a drug investigation into Lt. Donnie Williams.

The chief was cleared after an inquiry by Gonzalez, the attorney representing the city in the labor lawsuits. Craig lost at arbitration. Gonzalez was paid about $26,145 for helping the city win.

Gonzalez is paid a bargain rate of $90 an hour to assist city attorneys in defending the labor lawsuits involving the police department.

The union now is appealing seven cases to arbitration, including the recent firing of Officer David Sugar. Those cases are separate from the lawsuits. The city's labor-relations department ruled that Sugar should be reinstated with back pay and benefits. But Davis has refused.

The union, in turn, slapped the city with an unfair labor practice complaint at the Public Employees Relations Commission in Tallahassee.

"He listens to Goliath Davis. He doesn't listen to anybody else," Bill LauBach, the union's attorney and executive director, said of Davis.

Reorganization efforts ruffle some feathers

Shortly after his June 1997 appointment, Davis requested a list of employees nearing 25 years of service.

Former Maj. John G. Womer was on the list.

In early 1998, Womer signed up for a special retirement option. It allowed Womer to retire at his rank for pension purposes but remain a police officer for five years and draw a salary. His pension benefits were diverted to an investment account.

To Womer, that was an irrevocable agreement.

Davis did not believe Womer fit with future plans for the department. He met with Womer a few times and asked him to retire. Womer said no. Davis asked then-Assistant Chief Rick Stelljes to write a report on Womer's job performance. The report would be used, in part, to oust Womer.

Womer had received mostly "superior" ratings on an evaluation and had gotten a 4 percent merit raise just five months earlier.

He was forced out after Davis learned from another officer that Womer said: "You tell Davis he is going to pay for what he has done to me," the department quoted Womer as saying.

Womer, who participated in Bible study classes, said he was talking to a fellow Christian officer about prayer and forgiveness when he made the comment.

"The Lord will deal with him," Womer said in May 1998. "Did I threaten Chief Davis? Absolutely not."

Womer sued. He said he lost pay and the ability to earn thousands of dollars in investments through the retirement option.

"Womer had kids to put through college," said his attorney, Michael J. Keane. "Those are heavy responsibilities, and after giving your whole working life, you're certainly owed something more than to be spun out the door unceremoniously."

City attorneys say Womer's retirement agreement is not a contract.

"When I came on as chief of police, I could have cleaned house and told them all, "See you later,' " Davis said. "But I didn't do that. They've all been allowed to get their 25 years and accrue all of their retirement benefits."

Womer's lawsuit mirrors an action by former Assistant Chief Charles "Buddy" San Marco. San Marco was forced to retire by former police Chief Darrel Stephens days before Davis took over.

A jury awarded San Marco $360,000. The city has appealed.

Vice squad shake-ups spawn federal lawsuits

One of the most turbulent days in St. Petersburg Police Department history was July 9, 1998, known at the station as "Black Thursday."

Former vice and narcotics investigators Roy Olsen, Jeff Riley, Leonard Leedy and Julie Gironda were among 12 detectives punished after an investigation of time sheet fraud in their unit.

The four investigators are suing in U.S. District Court, claiming they were treated unfairly because they are white. The trial is scheduled for June 4.

Davis says the officers intended to cheat the city by double-dipping -- being paid while working private jobs at the same time. The officers also were disciplined for other misconduct, including showing preferential treatment and giving false testimony, Davis added.

But, said Lee Atkinson, a former federal prosecutor representing the officers, Davis had a personal agenda. The time sheet probe began three months after the chief took over.

"I think it's about a decision by Goliath Davis to reshape the St. Petersburg Police Department in his own image," Atkinson said. "The net result is officers that were disciplined disparately on the basis of racial discrimination."

Davis said the inquiry began when a payroll clerk in vice and narcotics complained about a maintenance worker. Near the end of the interview, the clerk mentioned as an aside the pay sheet problem.

"I concluded that the environment of the vice and narcotics division was one of insensitivity, divisiveness, racial and gender insensitivity, cliques, favoritism, a disregard for rules and regulations, a loss of mission and inefficient management," Davis said.

Vice and narcotics officers perform undercover operations involving drugs, prostitution and gambling. They work irregular hours and overtime and may flex schedules or take comp time.

Davis' administration likened the double-dipping to theft, saying one officer had 77 discrepancies on his time sheet. The officers say their errors were in record-keeping.

Olsen, an 18-year veteran, was suspended for 60 days and demoted to officer. Riley, a 12-year officer, was fired. Leedy, a 24-year veteran, was suspended for 60 days. Gironda, a 13-year employee, was suspended for 10 days.

They say past police chiefs allowed them to switch schedules to attend or teach classes only if they worked 40 "sweat" hours a week. But they filled out time sheets showing their assigned shifts, not the actual hours worked. They say they did this to make it easier for payroll.

Lt. Donnie Williams, -- a co-worker in vice and narcotics -- also was in two places at the same time, but he was let off easy because he is black, the officers say.

On city time, Williams studied for or attended classes for a bachelor's degree, their lawsuit says. He drove a city car for personal business. In some cases, while he was in class, Williams was inappropriately paid more for each hour worked -- a bonus that officers get for evening shifts.

Williams acknowledged his time sheets were wrong.

"They did not reflect the actual time I was there," he said.

Williams got a written reprimand in his file.

"He did more wrong than anybody else, and he didn't get disciplined for it," said Olsen, one of the plaintiffs, who now is a patrol officer.

As proof, Olsen pointed out that Internal Affairs did not get a schedule of Williams' classes at Saint Leo University for its investigation. The city said that because Saint Leo is a private college, it could not get the schedule. But the federal case file contains a letter from Saint Leo to the police union listing Williams' courses, dates and times.

Police administrators say Williams' case was different.

He had permission to attend evening courses even though they conflicted with his work schedule. He came in early to make up time, even though those make-up hours were not documented on his time sheets. He was not on two payrolls at the same time, although the city helped pay his college tuition.

"Nobody has ever suggested he didn't make up the time or double-dipped, which makes him different from all of these other people," said Gonzalez, the city's attorney.

Harassment concerns were dismissed, some say

Davis' legal troubles snowballed after the vice and narcotics case.

Sgt. Karen Lea sued in 1999 after she was demoted for misconduct. Her situation led to two other lawsuits and an EEOC complaint -- all by women.

In her complaint, Lea alleges retaliation and sexual harassment by a patrol officer. She said the police department has a history of tolerating a hostile environment toward women.

Part of her lawsuit suffered a setback in October when U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore threw out the sexual harassment complaint.

The retaliation count is scheduled for trial in the coming weeks in Tampa. So far, the city has paid Gonzalez $60,000 to fight the Lea suit.

During her 24-year career, Lea complained twice about Davis. He was her supervisor in 1982 when she accused him of saying he was attracted to her on a business trip. City attorneys say that was investigated and was unsubstantiated.

"Do you realize that Karen Lea apologized to me no less than three times for the false allegation?" Davis replied when asked about the accusation in an interview.

Lea complained again about Davis when Curtsinger was chief. She told him Davis hindered law enforcement work involving members of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement.

Lea says her every move was scrutinized, and that she was the subject of derogatory remarks once Davis was chief.

She said that Officer James McConaughey, who reported to her, called her at home about nine times when he was intoxicated and said things such as, "Are you naked?" and made more crude and suggestive comments.

She recommended that McConaughey attend an alcohol intervention program. Davis told a commander that he did not believe Lea's allegations. McConaughey was transferred to a male supervisor.

In his ruling, Judge Whittemore said McConaughey's behavior was "distasteful, offensive and inappropriate" but was not sexual harassment.

Lea's retaliation claim stems from discipline she received under Davis for making profane comments about an employee's sexual orientation. She flew into a rage after the employee erased a computer document she created.

"She referred to another human being as a faggot and c---sucker and said that he looked like he was dying of AIDS. She's not Joan of Arc," said Gonzalez, the city's labor attorney.

Lea was suspended for 30 days and demoted to officer. She appealed to the city.

According to court records, the city's hearing officer and labor relations manager both considered Lea's demotion and suspension excessive. Then assistant city attorney Rob Eschenfelder, who once dated Lea, told Lea that the city's hearing officer planned to reverse the discipline.

"In that series of conversations, (Lea) was informed that Chief Davis was angered by the proposed reversal and contacted Mayor Fischer," the records say. The mayor called the labor relations manager and asked that the police department's discipline be upheld, the records say.

"I never called the mayor complaining about anything related to discipline," Davis said. The mayor says the chief did not contact him and that he did not call labor relations on the chief's behalf.

Lea ended up losing her case at arbitration.

Her attorney, Jim Sheehan, said Davis has favored male officers over females in disciplinary matters.

Examples are cited in Lea's court file:

Retired Officer Mike Farmer refused to investigate a scene involving a gay person "because in his words, he just didn't like queers," records say. Evidence was lost. He was suspended for a day.

McConaughey, the officer who called Lea at home, showed up drunk at a massage parlor and pulled down his pants. He had a blood alcohol level of 0.34, four times higher than the point where the law presumes impairment. Supervisors held his dismissal "in abeyance pending a last-chance agreement." To keep his job, McConaughey had to refrain from alcohol and submit to random alcohol tests. He since has retired.

Lea won a $29,000 annual disability pension based on the stress her doctors said she endured in the department.

"I still suffer from recurring nightmares involving being publicly humiliated by Davis or finding myself on duty at a crime scene but knowing that I no longer belong there," she says.

Officers say complaints triggered retaliation

Sgt. Linda Perez, civilian investigator Patricia MacClean and Nave, the sex crimes detective sent to patrol, have this in common: They were retaliated against for testifying on Lea's behalf, they say.

Nave considers her transfer from detective to patrol in February 1999 a demotion. The administration says officers and detectives are the same job level. Her transfer was part of a 93-person reorganization.

"That's a management right," Davis said.

Council member Kathleen Ford said the sex crimes unit lost a valuable investigator when Nave was sent to the street.

"This woman was chosen by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as the person to model a program for the whole state," Ford said.

Perez, a 17-year officer, also says she was involuntarily moved from her position after backing Lea. Perez helped develop and coordinate the department's Employee Assistance Program. She pushed to ensure that records and communications remained confidential, she says.

Davis requested that she divulge the identity of certain officers in the EAP program, she says.

"Absolutely false," Davis said.

Perez testified that Davis disregarded Lea's complaints of sexual harassment by McConaughey. That night, the assistant chief of patrol visited Perez at home and told her she was going to patrol.

The EEOC ruled Perez has a discrimination case.

The agency said Perez was not listed on the police department's final memo of officers scheduled for transfer. She was selected for transfer "only hours after her testimony," Manuel Zurita, the EEOC's area director, wrote in a finding.

Davis says Perez was moved based on a study of the department by the U.S. Department of Justice. The study suggested the EAP program "be moved out of the department to increase its confidentiality and credibility." A psychologist-attorney was hired as a civilian city employee to oversee the program.

Mayor stands behind chief's accomplishments

Fischer never has publicly challenged Davis' management. He said the chief is "doing a very good job."

The mayor appointed Davis because he wanted heightened professionalism and respect of inner-city residents, he said.

"I think Chief Davis has really done that," Fischer said. "My feeling is the African-American population is very pleased with Chief Davis, and I think it shows."

Davis has a contract that ends June 16, 2002. The agreement requires annual reviews of Davis' performance, but the last evaluation was December 1998. Two months ago, Davis got a $3,245 raise. He earns $111,395 a year.

Lorraine Margeson, a crime watch coordinator in the United Central Neighborhood, is not happy with Davis or Fischer. She said both practice selective enforcement in predominantly black neighborhoods.

"This city has had a hands-off policy on target areas and other areas of District 1 so people will not get angry and come back with, "You're slamming the black community,' and "You're only arresting black Americans,' " Margeson said.

Adams, the black officer who retired, put it this way: "The mayor is afraid because of Joe Waller's (Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela) threats that, "Hey, if you do something, we're going to burn this city.' "

Fischer traditionally has won the city's black vote and has not said whether he will seek a fourth term, though others say he will. Rumors are circulating that Fischer is remaining mum because Davis wants the seat.

"I'm not running for mayor," Davis said. "Mayor Fischer's running for mayor."

Council members Bill Foster and Ford, a mayoral candidate, say Fischer provides no oversight of Davis. Ford said of the mayor: "Doesn't know. Doesn't care. Empty suit. Empty chair."

"I am alarmed at the number of cases that have either been filed or are pending," Foster said.

The police chiefs in Tampa and Clearwater, for example, are not facing myriad lawsuits filed by their employees.

But Fischer said lawsuits against St. Petersburg pale in comparison to Davis' achievements.

"I don't find it that abnormal," he said.

Davis is confident, too.

"This is a story that doesn't bother me in the least," he said.

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