Deadly force investigations can take years in some Fla. counties
By Henry Pierson Curtis
ORANGE and OSCEOLA COUNTIES, Fla. — Firing a gun takes an instant, but police officers who use deadly force in Orange and Osceola counties sometimes wait more than two years to learn whether they acted properly.
Although most officers return to duty within two weeks, they languish in legal purgatory while the office of State Attorney Lawson Lamar takes months to review the cases for possible violations of law, the Orlando Sentinel found.
Orange County Deputies Chester Parker and Robert Figueroa know about the wait.
They killed a naked, 215-pound schizophrenic man June 14, 2005, after he threatened them with a knife in a boarding-house hallway and a Taser failed to subdue him. They opened fire only after Rickey Mills tackled another man, sat on top of his victim and raised the knife to stab him, records show.
Prosecutors received the shooting report Dec. 21, 2005. They took 21 months to review the file before concluding in September that Parker and Figueroa saved the victim's life by shooting Mills.
In September, Lamar's office told the newspaper it had no backlog of shooting cases to be cleared.
At the time, however, Orange deputies Ryan Olsson, Neil Clarke and Keith Vidler had been waiting at least 24 months for word from the State Attorney's Office. A sniper on the Osceola sheriff's SWAT team was waiting after 22 months.
Such lengthy delays have become so common the Orange County Sheriff's Office routinely rules deputies acted within the agency's deadly force policy without waiting for Lamar's staff to decide whether the deputies acted legally.
When the Sentinel asked about these delays, Lamar's staff ultimately admitted that prosecutors had been closing cases without notifying deputies and police officers they would not face criminal charges.
"That's horrible," said Geoffrey Alpert, a nationally recognized expert in the use of deadly force by police. "This is something that should have a very high priority in the prosecutor's office because it hampers public safety. What it does to the officers, it puts them a step back — they hesitate when they should do something."
Waits are shorter elsewhere
Across the nation, officers involved in shootings are cleared or indicted within months, not years, according to Alpert, who has studied thousands of cases as a criminal-justice professor at the University of South Carolina.
Officers in Orange and Osceola counties wait four to seven times longer for their shooting cases to be resolved than officers elsewhere in Central Florida, the Sentinel found.
Deputy Vidler, for instance, wounded an Orlando man who tried to kill him after a fatal home invasion Aug. 6, 2005. Prosecutors say they received the shooting report Feb. 22, 2006. Vidler waited 18 months, until Oct. 18, when the case was closed after the Sentinel made a public-records request.
The formal letter notifying Sheriff Kevin Beary that Vidler had been cleared did not mention that Vidler should have been cleared seven months earlier. Records show an assistant state attorney read the case file March 6 and concluded Vidler had acted justifiably.
Deputies Olsson and Clarke waited 24 months to be cleared for shooting back at a suspect who opened fire on them Oct. 28, 2005, during a foot pursuit in south Orange County. Prosecutors received the case June 16, 2006. They cleared the deputies last month.
Clerical errors blamed
Asked about Olsson, Clarke and Vidler, Lamar spokeswoman Danielle Tavernier said the cases "were all closed by our office; but the disposition letter never [was] sent out, therefore not notifying the deputies. This is being addressed ASAP."
The explanation angered unions representing deputies and police officers.
"That is ridiculously irresponsible," said Orange County Deputy John Park, president of the Central Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents 1,300 deputies and supervisors. "All I know it is hurting deputies."
Park knows what it's like to be under scrutiny. In 1999, he waited more than a year to be cleared after he shot and killed a suspect in Taft. He thinks prosecutors pay more attention to the rights of suspects than those of officers enforcing the law.
Officers "should be afforded the right that is afforded every other person," he said. "And that is timely investigation, resolution and notification of their case status."
Problem goes back years
Lamar's staff blamed the delayed notifications on clerical errors. But homicide detectives, who help investigate shootings for prosecutors, say Lamar's office has dawdled on these cases for years.
Officer-involved shooting cases routinely collected dust for months before prosecutors looked at the files, retired Orange County sheriff's Sgt. Ron Corlew wrote in an e-mail.
No shooting case should take more than a couple of weeks for prosecutors to review, wrote Corlew, who ran the sheriff's Homicide Unit from November 1996 to May 2001. Any longer is unfair to deputies.
"The stresses of the job are sufficient enough," he said. "Add to that the traumatic experience of being involved in a shooting and then having to sit around and wait an exorbitant amount of time for someone to get off their duff and make a decision."
Delays and claims that prosecutors never received reports were so common that homicide detectives began making Lamar's staff sign for reports, Corlew said.
Files in Lamar's office were in such disarray as recently as six weeks ago that the staff could not find the one on Osceola sheriff's Sgt. Fred Hinderman in response to a records request.
Hinderman saved the life of a hostage Jan. 10, 2006, by shooting and killing an armed bank robber who refused to surrender. Tavernier and another Lamar aide, Chief Investigator Randy Means, suggested, wrongly, that the newspaper had given the office an incorrect spelling of Hinderman's name.
Actually, Hinderman already had been cleared three weeks earlier on Oct. 4 after the Sentinel began asking about his case. But no one had notified Hinderman or his boss, Sheriff Bob Hansell, by Oct. 26, when Hinderman responded to a request for comment on his wait.
"'With the support I have received from Sheriff Hansell, friends, and family I have felt very little pressure waiting for the SAO,' " he wrote in an e-mail.
Prosecutors received the file 18 months earlier. It shows no indication when or if anyone in Lamar's office reviewed the case before closing it.
None of the shooting files reviewed by the Sentinel showed that prosecutors had asked for more information.
Other counties rule faster
In nearby counties, state attorneys clear or charge officers much more quickly.
Polk County regularly acts within two months. Prosecutors in Brevard and Seminole counties rarely exceed four months. And in Lake and Volusia counties, cases are routinely closed in four to 10 months, according to interviews. Lamar's office handles many more deadly force investigations than prosecutors in those counties, however.
From Sept. 1, 2005, to Sept. 7, 2007, Orange and Osceola counties had 32 of the 50 officer-involved shootings investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties, records show. FDLE works with local agencies in preparing reports for prosecutors.
"They get the numbers," said FDLE Assistant Special Agent in Charge Dave Donaway. "It's not like the old days. There's something like 1.1 million people just in Orange County."
Sheriff Beary would not comment on the delays, even though his deputies are involved in more shootings than members of any other local agency. But other law-enforcement leaders faulted the process.
"It's like having a dark cloud over you, even in the best of cases," said Orlando police Chief Mike McCoy. "I wish it could be done faster."
McCoy voiced particular concern about the stress on officers under investigation, their families and fellow squad members. Supervisors can reassure officers, but only the prosecutor's decision will let them rest, he said.
Sheriff Hansell of Osceola speculated that Lamar's prosecutors don't feel urgency to close cases when the use of deadly force appears appropriate. Prosectors routinely call agency heads months before cases are closed to let them know there is no obvious wrongdoing, he said.
Orlando officers wait a year
The delays became public after the Sentinel asked in September why Orlando police Officer Jim Ruhl and three squad members had waited 12 months and longer to be cleared after a fight to the death with a convicted killer in April 2006.
"You've got to get your mind clear," Ruhl said of what it was like to return to duty while still under investigation. "You're more of a liability if you take that out with you."
Ruhl, a nine-year veteran, downplayed feeling any anxiety during his wait to be cleared but said it might have been intolerable if he had been a less-experienced officer without specialized training as a member of the SWAT team.
Yet, prosecutors were not concerned with how long the cases were taking.
"No two law-enforcement shooting investigations are the same, and thus we do not place artificial time limits on them," Means said when asked whether Ruhl's wait had been average or shorter or longer than normal. "While time is an important element for the officers and subjects of the shooting, our focus must remain on insuring justice occurs by reviewing the case thoroughly."
Means amended his comments when he learned his office had not been notifying officers and deputies when their cases were closed.
"Apparently the break down has been in closing the cases out in the computer and a failure to send affirmation letters promptly to agencies," he wrote, stating the problem was only months old. "That process has now been changed, and this processing error will be remedied."
Copyright 2007 Orlando Sentinel
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