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C CAIR-FL In The News

State attorney to decide if Lake deputies are credible witnesses in wake of 'offensive’ Facebook posts

By By LISA MARIA GARZA, For Orlando Sentinel, On 13 August 2019, Read Original
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Prompted by an outcry from CAIR-Florida and several activist groups, the State Attorney’s Office is investigating whether 16 Lake County Sheriff’s Office employees can be credible court witnesses after their controversial Facebook posts were exposed by a national study called the Plain View Project.

A coalition of local religious leaders and community advocates, including CAIR-Florida, wrote an open letter last month to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King — who represents Lake and four other counties — urging him to place the deputies on a “no call” list. That would prevent them from testifying in criminal cases.

“Establishing a no call policy is an essential step to repairing the community’s trust in law enforcement,” the groups said in the letter. “We must be able to have confidence in the veracity and impartiality of every officer the prosecutor relies on in pursuing a conviction.”

Lake County was the only Florida law enforcement agency out of eight departments included in the study — spearheaded by Philadelphia lawyer Emily Baker-White — whose employees were flagged for posting “offensive” content.

Many of the 35 Facebook posts connected to current employees expressed sentiments that activists say promote racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, homophobia and vigilantism.

After an internal review, the Sheriff’s Office last month cleared all employees of violating its internet policy, which restricts “photos, wording or content which is unethical, slanderous or derogatory" and applies only if the person identifies themselves as an employee.

The investigator cited various reasons in the reports for clearing the employees who were under scrutiny.

A deputy claimed he didn’t know the context of a meme he posted that depicted a tractor-trailer smeared with the blood of protesters who shut down Arizona streets in protest of a 2016 Donald Trump rally. Two employees weren’t working for the Sheriff’s Office when they posted about race wars and a meme mocking Muslims.

Others posts that displayed the Marvel Punisher emblem, Confederate flags and joked about using tasers on people were deemed "not inappropriate,” according to the investigation report.

Citing the history of the Groveland Four, civil rights groups including the state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Council on American-Islamic Relations said the deputies’ social media posts erodes the trust between the law-enforcement agency and the community. The Groveland Four case involved four black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949.

“Seeing posts by local law enforcement that demean others based on race and religion, or glorify violence in the carrying out of their duties, is more than cause for concern: it is a source of fear that, despite our best efforts, we have not moved beyond our painful past,” the letter said.

The Sheriff’s Office is required to turn over all case files for the 16 current employees to the State Attorney’s Office for review.

King, who is based in Ocala, said in an email that he directed his staff at his agency’s Lake County office to “determine whether there is material that could be used to impeach their credibility."

“We will examine that matter on a person by person basis and take whatever action is appropriate,” King said.

The State Attorney’s Office, which also includes jurisdiction over Marion, Citrus, Sumter and Hernando counties, already has a protocol of following a “Brady” policy, King said, which means prosecutors turn over evidence that may be favorable to the defense in criminal cases.

The policy refers to the landmark Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland that extends to information about a witness’s credibility, including law-enforcement officers.

The State Attorney’s Office for Orange and Osceola counties uses a Brady policy to review witnesses, although a police union criticized the practice for its ambiguity and noted the committee tasked with identifying potentially unreliable witnesses lacks a police perspective.

King said his office already has a list of questionable witnesses but didn’t elaborate on their identities.

Lake County sheriff’s Lt. John Herrell said in an email that the civil rights group behind the letter are “painting with an extremely broad brushstroke” by lumping together the comments made by four former employees — which represent the bulk of the posts studied by the Plain View Project — with the active-duty employees who were cleared of wrongdoing.

“We have a zero tolerance for racism, as well as for sexual or any other form of harassment and when these issues arise, we deal with them,” Herrell said.

Within the last year, two sheriff’s employees left the force after allegations of racism. A female crime-scene investigator was fired and a detention deputy retired before he could be terminated, according to internal investigation reports.

The investigation determined the crime-scene investigator made multiple racist remarks on different occasions to an African American detective in front of colleagues, including comments on his hair and lip size, that he must "live in the hood” and must “have a lot of kids like most black people,” according to the report. She also programmed the Siri assistant on her work iPhone to address her as “Grand Dragon” — a high-ranking person in the Ku Klux Klan.

An inmate at the Lake County Jail filed a complaint against a detention deputy, who told him he "don’t like black people.” According to the report, the inmate said the deputy later attempted to bribe him with $40 so he would keep quiet and then tried to coerce him into settling the matter by fighting in the recreation yard.

The State Attorney’s Office hasn’t said how long it will take to complete the investigation of the current sheriff’s employees.

Danielle Adams, Central Florida organizer for activist group Dream Defenders, said if the deputies aren’t barred from testifying it would be a disregard for conduct that violates the public’s trust.

“The State Attorney is sworn to provide justice and if we can’t get it at the local sheriff’s department …who do we have? We elect these people to protect us," Adams said of King and Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell. "Their job is to be transparent and accountable to the public.”

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