A good law for bad cops 


In between trying to gut Everglades restoration, jacking up phone bills via an industry-written law aimed at increasing "competition," and ignoring the will of the voters on class sizes and statewide rail, the Florida Legislature did find time to protect one group: crooked cops.

The law, SB 1856, passed May 1 and awaits the governor's signature. It enumerates very specific rights for police and corrections officers facing disciplinary action: "The interrogation shall be conducted at a reasonable hour, preferably at a time when the law enforcement officer or correctional officer is on duty. ... All questions directed to the officer under interrogation shall be asked by or through one interrogator. ... The law enforcement or correctional officer under investigation shall be informed of the nature of the investigation prior to any interrogation, and he or she shall be informed of the name of all complainants. ... Interrogating sessions shall be for reasonable periods and shall be timed to allow for such personal necessities and rest periods as are reasonably necessary. ... [The officer] shall not be subjected to offensive language."

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which pushed the legislation, hypes two other provisions of the bill in its newsletter: The first allows cops to sue people for making false complaints about them: "This new law should make folks think twice about filing false complaints that damage the image and reputation of our officers," boasts its newsletter. The second allows a police officer's attorney to see the evidence against him before he is interrogated.

These rights aren't afforded to ordinary criminal suspects. To do so would stymie investigations and make it harder for investigators to get information.

But this bill wasn't meant for criminal proceedings. Instead, this law regulates internal-affairs investigations into excessive use of force, forging paperwork and negligence, among other infractions, which can lead to suspensions, demotions and possibly termination.

The rules are different here: Criminal suspects can "plead the Fifth" and clam up when their answers would incriminate them. Not so for cops in disciplinary hearings. They have to answer every question, though those statements can't be used against them if the case turns criminal.

"Our position is, the hard-tactic criminal techniques are not appropriate for a disciplinary interview," says FPBA general counsel Hal Johnson. "We hope it would be done on a more professional level. We're not accusing these people of committing crimes. A police officer doesn't get treated differently if they're under a criminal investigation."

The FPBA convinced state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami) and state Rep. Fred Brummer (R-Apopka) to sponsor the bill, and they pushed it unanimously through both legislative bodies. Johnson says the new law is a clarification in response to police departments using multiple investigators in internal-affairs investigations. "That wasn't the intent [of the original law]," he says. "The intent was one interrogator."

Clarification or not, it does seem cops are getting special treatment. Sen. Rod Smith (D-Gainesville), a former prosecutor, told the St. Petersburg earlier this month that this law may compromise criminal cases, with defense attorneys challenging good cop/bad cop interrogations on equal-protection grounds.

"If it's a problem for police officers, maybe it should be a problem for everybody else," says Florida ACLU general counsel Larry Spalding. "Why should police officers be treated differently than anyone else? I don't understand why the rules are different."

The rules are also different for other public-sector employees under investigation. Non-law-enforcement government workers can't access files until an investigation is over and can't sue for false complaints unless they can prove malice or show that they suffered damages -- no harm, no foul. If the disciplinary investigation goes against them, they can appeal, which then leads to arbitration.

Legislators codified the new advantages just days after a Miami jury convicted four officers of obstructing justice by planting guns on police-shooting victims. "It looks kind of bizarre on the outside," Spalding says.

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