Chaos and Reckoning

This is what disarray looks like. And it’s healthy — vital even.

Behold, Lakeland and Polk County, your leadership class — with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no one to blame but itself. Long-term, mass-degradation-of-child-sexual-abuse-victim scandals at your largest city’s police department tend to have that effect.

Here’s The Ledger’s story from this morning. In case you missed it, let me run down what’s happened in the last 24 hours or so and translate it for you. It will probably be out of date quickly. Because this isn’t remotely finished.

Part I: Summary

1) The Polk legislative delegation yesterday afternoon registered its dissatisfaction with LPD and the city response to it. But it did so rather vaguely and further complicated matters by inventing a non-specific consulting role for Sheriff Grady Judd in reforming LPD. It then said that non-specific role will take effect only if the city asks.

2) Within about an hour, Mayor Gow Fields responded with a long mess of Gowish verbal porridge that essentially said, “Pound sand, Seth McKeel and Kelli Stargel and all the rest of you. We got this. We’re not asking for anything.” It will be fascinating to see what Seth and Kelli plan to do about being told to take a hike within 90 minutes of expressing their will.

3) Gow said his hastily released response letter represented the position of the City Commission and city staff leadership. Too which at least two city commissioners said, Well, not so much.

4) And just this afternoon, state Rep. Neil Combee sent a strong statement of his own to the city. It declared, among other things:

“I also personally want to emphasize that I’ve lost confidence not just in LPD leadership, but in the Lakeland city government leadership as a whole.”

The overall effect of this, it seems, is that no one is in charge. No one, including Grady Judd, is willing to make a specific suggestion for a course of action. No one has a plan. No one has any authority. And no one will suggest that anyone needs to go. Chaos. This crisis is widening, not narrowing. And it needs to widen. Longterm police-and-city-official degradation-of-childhood-sexual-abuse-victim scandals deserve to widen.

This will end up on the governor’s desk eventually, if not sooner. Yay. What a cheering thought.

Part II: Understanding what’s to come

Here are some points to consider as we move ahead.

1) When you hear the phrase, “Let the investigation take its course,” you should hear the actual meaning of those words. That would be: “Give us time to let the hullaballoo and outrage die down so that as many high-ranking city and police employees can keep their jobs and authority as possible.” Time is the friend of power and inertia. Remember that.

2) This isn’t just a police longterm-sexual-degradation-of-a-childhood-sexual-abuse-victim scandal. It’s a city of Lakeland longterm-sexual-degradation-of-a-childhood-sexual-abuse-victim scandal.

For example:

According to the State Attorney’s report, Lakeland Fire inspector David Bivens admitted to having sex with Eberle in her car in the parking lot of the Lakeland Center immediately following Officer Arnulfo Crispin’s funeral, with mourners lingering all around.

And, according to Eberle’s testimony in the report, the action came right into City Hall in 2004, through employee relations director George Brooks. Let me repeat that: Employee. Relations. Director.

According to the state attorney’s report, “Brooks was very flirtatious and asked Eberle many times for sex…All of their contact was in person at City Hall.”

And on one occasion in 2004, Brooks and Eberle were alone in Brooks’s office and he closed the door. He undressed Eberle enough to be able to “cut some pubic hair from Eberle. He put the pubic hair in an envelope and told Eberle he wanted something to remember her by.”

Brooks retired in 2009, presumably with full pension, etc.

So this is not new; and it’s not just a police culture. Not. Just. A. Police. Culture. The police are just the tip of the spear. Abysmal continuity from 2004 to 2013.

3) That’s why City Manager Doug Thomas and City Attorney Tim McCausland need to resign. Yesterday. For a moment, let’s entertain the idea that we should allow Chief Womack to see her investigation through — that she has a role to play. Just saying, entertain it.

If that’s the case, there’s really no need for Doug or Tim. They’re not taking any depositions. They won’t take city investigators with them when they go. Do we really need their hard driving approach to governance to make sure the any reforms stick?

As I said, I like Doug. This isn’t personal, even though I know that’s a meaningless thing to say. I don’t enjoy calling for anybody’s job, especially someone I know and like. One of these days the shoe may well be on my foot. But I care much more about the community I plan to live in for the rest of my life than any discomfort I feel from seeing these people around town.

The most pathetic passage from Gow’s pathetic response to the delegation was this: “Two officers and one civilian employee have already resigned in the wake of the internal investigation being conducted by the Lakeland Police Department.”

As if he expected applause.

What might have carried some weight in holding off the pressure from outside is this: “Our city manager and city attorney have already resigned in the wake of the internal investigation.” That, Gow, you might be able to use as evidence that you grasp the magnitude of what’s happening here.

So Doug, if you want to play an important and constructive role in restoring a tiny, tiny bit of honor to the place you’ve given a decade to, you should do the honorable thing and resign.

4) Commissioners, do you really want Womack to stay around?

Again, let’s visit the report and its summary of Officer Scott Sherman’s statements:

“Among the many things he told us was that he felt certain officers received preferential treatment and there were two sets of standards that were applied by the LPD Administration. He felt that Chief Womack rules by threat and intimidation, and that through Union negotiations she has established a new discipline policy where she is the ultimate judge on all matters.

“He was told that Sgt. Woolverton went missing from the [SWAT] competition for an extended period of time and nobody could locate him. He said that it was told that Sgt. Woolverton was discovered to have left to engage in a sexual encounter with a woman he was having an affair with. He believed the incident to have been investigated by LPD, but no disciplinary action was taken to his knowledge. He believed Woolverton to be one of the officers at LPD [that] Administration has shown favoritism towards.”

It goes on to detail other favored officers. And it discusses a retired officer critical of LPD reportedly “threatened by Chief Womack through Asst. Chief Larry Giddens” with losing his benefits.

Woolverton, you’ll recognize perhaps, as the sergeant that Eberle accuses of some of the most menacing conduct toward her. He acknowledges consensual sex, but nothing more.

So let me ask, commissioners, who is investigating the claims about Womack and the administration? Who can address that? Maybe Scott Sherman is lying to try to save his own skin. Maybe he’s not. Does Chief Womack get to say? Commissioners, do you really all have “full confidence” in Womack at this point, having read the same report I have? You have read it, right?

And what does this sentence mean? “…Through Union negotiations she has established a new discipline policy where she is the ultimate judge on all matters.”

If she’s ultimate judge, how’s that working out so far?

5) Where is the police union in all of this? Have they issued a statement? Did I miss it?

I know generally that public safety unions are extremely powerful within their worlds, much more so than teacher unions, for instance. I also know that many people will reflexively blame the police union for what’s happened here because of a general distaste for unions. I do not know many specifics of how this union behaves and the role it may or may not have played. It does seem to be the dog that is not barking right now, though. It seems curiously quiet.

[Late update: Union did issue a statement on Monday, supportive of Womack, blaming former Chief Boatner, critical of Jerry Hill, kind of non-specific. We’ll see.]

If I were a commissioner very close to the city unions, and I know some of them are, I would encourage these unions to help solve this problem. Get in front. I would encourage the union not to go to the mat to protect officers who mangle the perception of other officers. I hope and trust the unions here will do everything in their power to restore some honor.

I hope I am not proved naive.

Part III: Stones and glass houses. Get over it.

Yes, it’s true. No one in this county is throwing stones from anywhere but a glass house.

Exhibit 1 — Jerry Hill’s office has, in the past, employed the grand jury in ways that smack of politics. Ask Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards. I don’t think that’s happening here, in this case. But when people whisper about such things, and they are and will, there is in fact historical reason to do so. Remember when Randy Wilkinson managed to get arrested and hauled into court in two consecutive election cycles (’02 and ’06, I think), with the second arrest a completely phantom DUI? I remember. That was a joint effort of LPD, the Sheriff’s Office, and prosecutors during happier days.

Exhibit 2 — There is not much of a groundswell of support for Grady Judd among critics of police abuses of power. That’s because the sheriff likes to have pictures taken of himself and deputies in cowboy outfits and makes life hard for troublesome atheists, etc. I think these critics generally confuse the character Grady plays for the agency he runs. They think he’s Joe Arpaio. He’s not. But it’s very hard to blame them for thinking he’s Joe Arpaio when he flirts pretty heavily with that image.

I don’t know enough about the issues with children at the jail and youth camps etc. to comment on their validity. I think people who read me know my thoughts, in general, about criminalization of children and mass incarceration. But, again, it does make it hard to think of the sheriff as the man on horseback when his office is embroiled in litigation over treatment of children in custody.

The irony here is that Grady would probably do an excellent job reforming LPD’s on-the-ground policing. Running a jail is a different matter. But I’ve never seen any indication that the sheriff lacks control over his people. And my overwhelming perception is of an agency that polices professionally and competently. Grady the professional law enforcement administrator is quite good at his job, in my opinion. It’s too bad right now that Grady the cartoon character clouds that reality.

Exhibit 3 Seth McKeel and Kelli Stargel are neck deep in a public charter school system designed to keep troubled children, like, say, Sue Eberle probably was, away from their kids. Kelli Stargel would love to grade Sue Eberle as a parent.

Exhibit 4 I’m certainly no one to write home about. Vain and impulsive and arrogant and offputting. I get it. Who knows what secrets I keep? I’m not telling.

So no. We have no heroes to work with here, myself most definitely included. But some times we all have to throw stones from the glass houses we have, not the ones we wish we didn’t. We have to triage some problems together. We who want meaningful action are looking for allies and will take them wherever and whenever we can get them. So I’m very thankful to each of the people above for doing what they’ve done so far. I want to help them however I can.

I started this piece with a swipe at the Polk/Lakeland leadership class. It’s well-deserved. But it’s also beside the point now. It is indeed time to focus on the future. And the best way to do that is to acknowledge the magnitude of what’s happened and atone accordingly.

5 thoughts on “Chaos and Reckoning

  1. One suggestion I would consider is to do what the City of Bartow did when they had a police department meltdown a few years ago. They “borrowed” a Captain from the Sheriff’s Office for a few months. Grady didn’t take over. He just loaned one of his experienced people to manage things for a while. It was much appreciated. Now, he wanted to take over completely but the residents virtually revolted. We like having the level of service that we’ve enjoyed forever and are willing to pay for it.

  2. Actually, I’d like to edit that. Maybe asking for a “loaner” from the City of Tampa might be a better idea. They might have more experience with municipal policing than the Sheriff’s Office.

  3. Good job Billy. It seems we agree again. If the Commission doesn’t act soon with fortitude they may find themselves being forced into retirement.

  4. Oh what a true call on the, ‘Gowish verbal porridge.’ I am afraid this city might just strangle on that stuff.
    Well done sir.

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