PORT RICHEY, Florida – A serious crime may have been committed inside police department headquarters...but Port Richey’s top crime-fighter isn’t overly-concerned.
Following a whistleblower’s tip, 10Investigates launched a four-month investigation into the Port Richey Police Department, where officers allegedly accessed personnel records to remove detrimental discipline and evaluations: an apparent violation of several Florida state criminal statutes. Research included numerous records requests and interviews with officers, former officers, and several with current police chief, Gerard DeCanio.
10Investigates found not only had dozens of disciplinary documents gone missing from both police department and city HR records, but also a lack of appetite from DeCanio to launch an internal investigation or ask for outside help to get to the bottom of how the records – which are required to be retained by state law – disappeared. DeCanio insisted the problems happened before he re-joined the department last October as chief.
“These files were cleaned out before I got here,” DeCanio repeatedly told 10Investigates.
But DeCanio’s response to reporter questions shifted over the course of three months. Initially denying the possibility of missing documents or any unauthorized access to records, DeCanio later said he remembered checking HR records on certain officers when he began as chief and noticed discipline was missing back then, suggesting the problems were with the previous administration.
“Some mistakes were made,” DeCanio said. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
But DeCanio hasn’t been able to produce any answers for 10Investigates yet.
He also admitted to personally shredding one document inappropriately: a complaint about lost police department property from Officer Jeffrey Cox, one of the officers at the center of the controversy. Cox also happens to be DeCanio’s old patrol partner from Chief DeCanio’s previous stint as a Port Richey officer.
The chief said he shredded the document because Cox appealed the discipline and the city did not respond to the appeal in the time allowed by the police union’s contract. However, Florida retention laws required those documents to be preserved in Cox’ HR file regardless.
Since 10Investigates began looking into missing documents, DeCanio and city staff have started searching for - and replacing - some disciplinary documents in officers’ files.
According to DeCanio, Cox denied removing documents from his personnel file.
“I asked Officer Cox if he cleaned his file out and he said, 'no I didn't,’ ” DeCanio said. “That's where we left it."
The issues of integrity could be concerning not just to citizens of Port Richey who rely on police officers’ honesty, but also to citizens elsewhere; when Port Richey officers like Cox apply for better-paying jobs at surrounding agencies, those police departments and sheriffs’ offices will have no idea of how many times – or how severely - that officer has been disciplined for violating department rules.
In Cox’s case, it had been numerous times for issues that include disrespecting and “bullying” citizens.
DeCanio said he is working with HR to identify more records that have gone missing and he is instituting a “sign-out” sheet for any employees who want to look at personnel files.
However, he has also continued to shift attention away from the No. 2 cop in Port Richey, Captain Erik Barcelo, who was left in charge of all internal affairs documents when he assumed the position alongside DeCanio last October.
The current administration suggests the records were not maintained properly by former Chief Rob Lovering and Asst. Chief William Ferguson, a pair of retired Tampa officers who were brought into Port Richey in 2014 to clean up the troubled department following a tow truck scandal where officers were found by FDLE to be taking kickbacks from Tokay Towing.
But when 10Investigates contacted Lovering and Ferguson, the two produced copies of some of the discipline that neither Port Richey police nor Port Richey city HR employees could – and should be able to – produce. They described in detail the documents – and locations of each document – left for the current administration when they handed over the reins last fall.
“(DeCanio) came in the day after I left on a Saturday trying to get the keys to the office,” Lovering said. “So if he is claiming he went inside the day he came, Saturday, and there were no files there, then either someone broke in the night before, or he's giving a statement that's not correct."
Lovering left in October over what he described was philosophical differences with the city’s new mayor, who then hired DeCanio as the new chief. DeCanio had been previously working for Enforcement One, a company that outfits police vehicles with equipment. Enforcement One also played a role in the towing scandal investigated by FDLE since the company is owned by the same family as Tokay Towing. The owners of the tow company did not return a 10Investigates call left at the business last week.
Former Chief Lovering also suggested he and Ferguson would have no motivation to destroy discipline records they documented during their two years at Port Richey P.D.
"Either (the current administration) was involved or they have knowledge of what happened with these records,” Lovering said. “Because all of them would have motive.”
Among the documents neither the police department nor city hall could produce: a list of internal affairs investigations conducted in recent years.
Lovering and Ferguson want the FBI and FDLE to investigate what they described as felonious behavior inside the Port Richey Police Department and city hall.
“If they make an arrest,” Lovering asked rhetorically, “How is the citizen supposed to believe that (officer) is telling the truth?"
Employees working for the city have also been unable to explain why certain officer discipline records were missing from their files as well, suggesting shoddy bookkeeping was to blame, rather than something nefarious.
But the previous administration is concerned years of complaints and investigations regarding officer mistakes - often toward citizens - will never be recovered.
“The citizens should worry because their voices, when they make these complaints, are supposed to be heard,” said Lovering. “And if (the complaint is legitimate), they’re trying to save the next citizen from being that officer’s next victim of attitude or behavior.”
“It’s horrific because all the time & effort we spent putting this together to make this a professional organization has just been tossed aside,” Ferguson said. “Someone came in there and removed the records."