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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Haines City Police Scandal Triggers Reform

Sheriff's Maj. Mike Pruitt takes helm to serve temporarily as chief
The Ledger by Kevin Bouffard - November 15, 2008 

HAINES CITY, FLORIDA - Officers were afraid to report corruption by the Haines City Police Department's top two leaders for fear of losing their jobs, the acting chief said Friday, and morale and other problems in the department were every bit as bad as detailed in a grand jury report released Thursday.

A Disgraceful Series of Events: Polk Grand Jury Findings on Haines City Polic Department;  Stewart Suspended Without Pay; Review Reveals Problems; Haines City Police Captain Indicted;  Chief Resigns; Polk Grand Jury Findings on Haines City Police Department; Two More Haines City Officers Suspended; Haines City Police Chief Indicted for Prostitution; Haines City Police Lieutenant Resigns

Office Nicole Gusaeff filed a sexual harassment complaint against Stewart in August

"When you have corruption on the top, it creates fear on the bottom," acting Chief Mike Pruitt said, referring to former Chief Morris West, who resigned Oct. 31, and Capt. Mervin Stewart, the second in command until he was suspended Nov. 7. Both West and Stewart were indicted by a grand jury investigating the department. Pruitt, a Haines City native, is a Polk sheriff's major temporarily under contract to run the department, which he took control of Oct. 24, when West was indicted on three misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution. West resigned in a settlement with the 10th Judicial Circuit State Attorneys Office, which dropped the charges in return for his resignation and surrendering his law enforcement certification. "What I found (in the first days) was a lack of trust among officers. I found a lack of trust between the citizens and the officers," Pruitt told The Ledger on Friday. "It was pretty much people doing what they can to cover themselves because they don't know if they're on the right side or the wrong side" of West and Stewart.

City Manager Ann Toney-Deal agreed the grand jury report accurately reflected police morale and worried that the report has damaged residents' confidence in the department.  "Accountability is gone, as is policy, from HCPD; however, more importantly, officer morale is almost nonexistent at this time," reported the grand jury, which had been investigating the department since August. "Officers have no role models to follow, as the primary culprits breaking long-standing policy are their chief and captain. The old adage, 'Do as I say, not as I do,' seems to have replaced the professional policy at HCPD."

Although State Attorney Jerry Hill said the report concluded the grand jury's investigation of the department, Pruitt said he will undertake an internal investigation into every allegation raised in the 25-page document. The internal investigation will look into West's and Stewart's actions and anyone else involved. "Anything else we discover, we're going to investigate," Pruitt said. The report disturbed no one more than West's predecessor, former Chief Tom Wheeler, who retired in 2003 after 12 years as Haines City chief. He now works as a recruiter for the Polk County Sheriff's Office. "I am angry at the administration of the police department. I'm not only angry at the police department. The chief has to answer to someone," said Wheeler, referring to Toney-Deal. "The city manager is responsible for all department heads. They answer to her. It seems to me there wasn't proper management from city hall."

Under Wheeler, the department in 1992 was the first in Polk to get accreditation from Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies in Fairfax, Va., which certifies standards for agencies worldwide. The department did not reapply for the voluntary accreditation when it expired 2003 - the year West became chief. Toney-Deal accused Wheeler of "Monday-morning quarterbacking." She said she leaves it to department heads to run day-to-day operations. "Our focus is not on yesterday; it's on tomorrow," she said. "Many issues that were brought forward, I did not or could not know about without physically being located at the police department. Had I had knowledge and evidence, my history shows I would have acted accordingly." The grand jury dealt with Toney-Deal's management, stating she was hampered in her oversight by pressure from city commissioners.

"In the case of Haines City, until recently, three of the elected commissioners were very close to Chief West, this being his brother (Horace West) and two close friends," the report said. The report does not identify the other two commissioners, but "until recently" suggests one was former Commissioner Joe Hamilton, who lost his re-election bid in April. And sources said the other appears to be Mayor Roy Tyler, a commissioner since 1991 and a lifelong Haines City resident. Tyler did not return a call from The Ledger on Friday, and Hamilton could not be reached to comment. "Clearly, having Chief West's brother as a commissioner, her boss, puts Ann Toney-Deal in an awkward position," the grand jury report said. "These lifetime relationships between brothers and the other two commissioners who were close friends of Chief West have caused problems. Ms. Toney-Deal is not in a position to adequately discipline Chief West for some of his actions because of the feedback from the commissioners and the community." 

Wheeler disagreed. "If you know something to be wrong, you must stand up and be accountable," he said. "If she faced pressure from the city commission, she needed to stand up." But Commissioner Horace West said no such pressure arose with Toney-Deal's management of the department during his eight years on the commission. "That's a bunch of hogwash," he said. "Ann knows, because it's one of the things I've talked to her about is that I would never interfere with the running of city business." Commissioner West also disagreed that Tyler and Hamilton could be characterized as his brother's close friends, because they are significantly older. City policy calls for written annual evaluations of department heads, the grand jury report said, but West's last three evaluations "were in large part verbal for fear of retribution from the commissioners." Toney-Deal said the report took her testimony "somewhat out of context." She told the grand jury she expounds upon her written comments in face-to-face meetings with department heads over their evaluations, Toney-Deal said. She declined to comment on fearing retribution from commissioners.

The report also quotes Toney-Deal's testimony that "Haines City's chain of command has not been a good system over the last few years, creating problems which have not been experienced in other city departments." Toney-Deal acknowledged that accurately reflects her testimony, but she declined to elaborate on what "chain of command" she was referring to, specifically the chain between her and the chief or between West and other officers. The city commission meets at 7 p.m. Thursday, and the grand jury report is not on the agenda because it does not call for any action from commissioners, Toney-Deal said. That would not prevent commissioners from raising the issue on their own. Horace West and Commissioner Adam Burgess, who took Hamilton's seat, said it would likely come up Thursday. "I don't believe the commission can avoid it," Burgess said. Kevin Bouffard can be reached at or at 863-422-6800. Visit his blog, Northeast Polk Pickins, at 

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