Tallahassee police under scrutiny even before Jameis Winston case
Its handling of sexual assault allegations against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is just the latest controversy to hit the Tallahassee Police Department.
A handful of grand juries recently have issued scathing reports about how some officers have conducted themselves in the line of duty. In the most egregious case, a fumbled drug investigation resulted in the death of an informant.
Now, the department is coming under scrutiny for its handling of a sexual assault case in which a Heisman Trophy candidate stands as the accused. The family of the student who says she was raped claims the department tried to squelch the case: It took 11 months for Tallahassee police to hand over information to prosecutors.
Patricia Carroll, the attorney representing the alleged victim in the Winston case, said last week she ''had no faith whatsoever'' in the Police Department.
On the same day the department handed over the Winston case to prosecutors, a Leon County grand jury issued a stinging report criticizing the department for how it handled a drunken driving arrest. The arrest — which left the female driver with a broken bone in her face — created such an uproar this fall that it prompted Chief Dennis Jones to abruptly retire.
The video from the August arrest of Christina West showed officers slamming her into a police car before throwing her to the ground. West can be heard screaming in the video. West's attorney said the police ''treated her like an animal'' and has already placed the city on notice that West plans to sue them.
The grand jury blamed the department — which has placed the two officers involved in the arrest on administrative leave — for allowing the situation to escalate.
''We find the sarcastic comments and lack of professionalism by the arresting officers, after Ms. West was injured, was disconcerting,'' the grand jury said in its presentment. ''We further find that the sergeants failed to intervene in the arrest and also deescalate the situation by not following their own policies and procedures. They also failed to demonstrate the respect for citizens that this community demands from its law enforcement officers.''
Interim police Chief Tom Coe contends that a handful of incidents should not be used to tarnish the entire department.
''When you consider we handle over 300,000 incidents a year and we have very few issues out of those 300,000, that's a good department,'' said Coe, a veteran officer who had been the Tallahassee police chief in `90s.
But State Attorney Willie Meggs, who is still deciding whether to bring charges against Winston, said, ''It's clear that it's an agency with some problems.''
''But it's also clear that Chief Coe is trying to deal with those problems, and it's also extremely clear that are many, many good police officers who work there and want it to be a top notch agency,'' Meggs added.
The report issued Nov. 12 on the West case was the third grand jury report released in the past five years to slam the department.
The most damning report came in the wake of the May 2008 death of Rachel Hoffman. Hoffman, a Florida State University graduate who was recruited by police as an informant after being caught with drugs, was shot five times after police lost track of her during a drug deal.
Hoffman, of Safety Harbor, was sent alone by police with $13,000 in marked bills to buy Ecstasy, cocaine and a gun, according to records. Instead, the men killed her and stole her car, a credit card and the marked money.
After her death, the Florida Legislature passed ''Rachel's Law,'' requiring police to adopt policies to protect informants. The measure also requires special training for investigators who work with informants, makes police tell informants they cannot be promised reduced sentences, and allows them to talk with a lawyer before doing anything.
The grand jury looking into the Hoffman case called the police negligent and in the end the city of Tallahassee agreed to pay $2.4 million to Hoffman's parents.
Lance Block, the attorney who represented the Hoffman family, sees similarities to how the Winston case has been handled.
''From what I have read and heard in the media, this case sounds similar as far as the cavalier regard that TPD has to its own policies and procedures and a lack of supervision,'' Block said.
Winston, 19, was a top freshman recruit and backup quarterback at the time of the alleged Dec. 7, 2012, assault. The alleged victim called police that night to report the incident.
Coe, the interim police chief, contends that the police pursued the case until February, when they were told that the victim no longer wanted to prosecute. The case was never closed, Coe insisted, only placed on inactive status.
That contradicts what Timothy Jansen, the attorney representing Winston, says he was told back in February. He says he was told the case was closed. But after two media organizations requested information about it was quickly turned over to local prosecutors.
Meanwhile, the alleged victim's family insists that she wanted the case to go forward but was being pressured to drop it.
In two statements issued in the past week, the family maintained Patricia Carroll was told by a detective that Tallahassee is a ''big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable.''
The family said Carroll asked a Tallahassee police detective to obtain a DNA sample from Winston. But the detective refused to get the sample and refused to interview potential witnesses. The family said the detective told Carroll that ''such activity would alert Winston and the matter would go public.''
Tallahassee police, so far, have refused to address most of the allegations leveled at them by Carroll but have insisted that the full story has yet to come out about how the agency handled the investigation into Winston, who threw for 225 yards and four touchdowns as Florida State beat Idaho 80-14 Saturday..
''There are many statements and comments being made daily, some of which are factual, some are not factual,'' Coe said. ''We can't go into detail about that ... but there will be a point in time in which we can comment.''