A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2002
The federal government has made serious corruption allegations against members of the Plant City Police Department, and it's time leaders there explain what is going on. Most of the charges involve officers assigned to the department's special investigations unit who, prosecutors say, conducted illegal searches, stole from suspects and falsified police reports to conceal a criminal conspiracy.
It would be difficult to imagine a broader and more systematic violation of suspects' constitutional rights than what allegedly took place in Plant City. In December, Plant City Officer Robert David Dixon pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge. His plea agreement outlined numerous abuses by unnamed police officers, and by one public official who knew about the illegalities and had "both the power and a concomitant duty" to stop them.
According to the government, the officers threatened suspects, made dozens of illegal searches, faked affidavits, lied to judges and trampled on civil rights. The officers, Dixon said, often failed to inventory seized property and laughed and joked about adding to their "booty" of stolen property. Their actions "jeopardized the viability of dozens of criminal cases," according to court documents, and led a Hillsborough County judge this week to set aside two drug-related convictions. State prosecutors also are reviewing the involvement of Plant City police in other criminal cases to see whether evidence was compromised in any case.
This is not, in other words, an isolated problem or an internal matter for Plant City police. Earlier this month, a third officer was charged in the ongoing investigation, and his case adds to the picture of a small-town police agency with leadership and accountability problems. Plant City's mayor, police chief and political leadership are doing what officials in small towns often do -- hunkering down and hoping the attention goes away.
We understand the reason for secrecy in an ongoing investigation. But these cases speak to larger questions about the operations of the Police Department, the checks and balances in city government and the reputation of a growing community that leaders in Plant City must address. One or two rogue cops is not unheard of; a handful points to more serious problems. Having these charges circulate for a year has damaged the city's standing and compromised countywide law enforcement. These are dark times for a community whose influence is on the rise. If city leaders see the big picture, they will speak up.