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Polk needs a professional LPD
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Updated: 07/03/2013 08:01:39AM

Polk needs a professional LPD

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If the Lakeland Police Dept. were a college fraternity, we suspect it would have been kicked off campus by now, and its charter revoked by its national office.

Results of investigations revealed in the past week make the LPD police station sound like a scene from Animal House, not a law enforcement headquarters.

Granted, this is Lakeland’s problem, but every motorist who drives through the largest city in Polk County has reason to look at every passing patrol car and wonder, “Are you one of them?” We are not naive; we know that acts of sexual indiscretion occur in police departments, as they do in other venues.

But that is no excuse for the extended pattern of misconduct reported by State Atty. Jerry Hill, acts which involve at least 10 present officers, half of whom hold ranks of sergeant, lieutenant, or captain. Hill’s investigation revealed similar allegations against 10 former officers, up to the rank of assistant chief.

This represents a pattern of misconduct, not an occasional indiscretion.

Hill’s investigation revealed allegations of sexual misconduct ranging from consensual activity and sexual harassment to sexual battery. And it shows that in addition to the participants, other officers had knowledge of the conduct and did nothing.

One officer with a little less than five years with the department reportedly had a disciplinary file of 585 pages. Another garnered attention from Channel 8 in Tampa for allegedly requiring a young woman to lift her blouse and shake her bra as part of a supposed search for narcotics.

Three of five ranking officers (sergeant, lieutenant, and captain) are on paid leave and two are assigned to “modified duty.” Their salaries, which range from nearly $70,000 to more than $101,000, apparently go on as if they were performing their duties.

In addition to the sexual misconduct alleged by Hill’s investigation, the state attorney’s office found “serious shortcomings of your (LPD) department in the areas of traffic stops, search and seizure, thoroughness of investigations, preparedness for trial and complying with the Florida Public Records Law,” Hill wrote in a letter to Lakeland’s police chief.

He also said his prosecutors will no longer present testimony from three sergeants.

While the city manager and police chief both expressed outrage over the revelations, Hill said the city manager seems committed to the concept that “we are going to defend what we’ve got.”

Hill urged the city to go beyond “just circling the wagons.”

These are strong words coming from the chief prosecutor in the Tenth Judicial Circuit.

Two Lakeland city commissioners quickly went on record calling for an outside investigation. To our way of thinking, that’s a no-brainer.

When alleged misconduct reaches to the rank of captain, and involves 10 present officers and 10 former officers, not to mention those employees who failed to report their misconduct, an internal investigation by members of the department is bound to raise questions about its validity.

While misconduct by 20 present and former officers is indicative of a seriously flawed department, most of the remaining officers in a force of 250 presumably are competent and conscientious. They deserve to have the integrity of the department re-established as soon as possible.

We have long held that any city large enough to afford to have its own police department should do so, rather than contracting with the sheriff for law enforcement.

In fact, when a proposal to contract with the sheriff for city law enforcement was considered in Bartow, close examination revealed that the city would end up paying more to contract for the service than it was spending to operate its own department.

But in the case of the LPD, we see merit in the Lakeland city commission asking Sheriff Grady Judd to send in enough professional leadership to run the department, to clean house of officers who are unworthy of public trust, and to create a department in which Lakeland can take pride and all Polk Countians can have confidence.

Taxpayers and other law-abiding citizens deserve nothing less.

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