PALMETTO, Florida -- Palmetto is a town with a problem. The Manatee County community of 12,000 people has a violent crime rate that's worse than the national average.
Palmetto's 35 sworn officers, led by Chief of Police Rick Wells, are the ones charged with cracking down on crime.
Wells says, "I say we have some outstanding officers that do a great job in the city of Palmetto every single day."
But if Palmetto police want to cut crime, some of them may want to start by looking in the mirror. Some of the officers have arrest records themselves, on charges ranging from driving drunk to abusing the disabled and aggravated assault.
Take the case of Chief Wells' own second-in-command, Assistant Chief Scott Tyler. Tyler left the scene of an accident before eventually coming back. He was arrested for driving drunk, but he refused a breathalyzer test. So what happened to Assistant Chief Tyler? He got a two week suspension and is still on the force today.
Tyler's not alone.
Officer Kris Rossman was caught on camera in a physical altercation with a brain injured patient at the Florida Institute for Neurological Rehabilitation, or FINR. Though the charges were dropped, FINR fired Rossman. Palmetto hired him.
How about Officer Rebecca Evans? Before she even joined the force, Evans was charged with threatening, then striking a school employee.
Wells says, "There was a push or she nudged by them."
But that's not what the department's own police report says, stating, "Evans then swung her right hand and hit (the employee) on the right side of her neck."
In the end, the victim decided not to press charges.
When we talked to the chief, we said, "It's a small department, but you have a lot of folks that have had problems in the past or problems now."
Wells said, "Yes, sir." And we asked if he was concerned that he has a lot of officers who have problems. He told us, "The only thing I can pay attention to is what I've done since I've been here."
Besides criminal charges, some Palmetto officers have had serious problems following their own department's rules.
Take Detective Stephen Greer. He was accused of an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old girl. He texted the teen repeatedly, sometimes sending sexual messages. Greer was fired, but then reinstated. Today, he runs Palmetto's Criminal Investigation Division.
There's Lt. Mike Stinson, cited for letting a suspect drive away, even though the man was high on drugs and had drugs in his possession.
And there's Corporal Mike Kelly, who asked the Manatee Sheriff's Office for help finding a dangerous fugitive, but forgot to tell his own department, putting his fellow officers' lives in danger.
According to the chief, "You can go to any department and look at personnel files and see issues."
But then there are even more Palmetto officers who had problems before they ever joined the force, but the Palmetto Police Department hired them anyway.
Take K-9 Officer Chris Leister. Leister used to work for the St. Petersburg Police Department. Supervisors say he didn't know the law, that his investigations lacked depth, and that he took time off without permission. He eventually resigned in St. Pete and wanted to come back, but St. Petersburg Police wouldn't rehire him. But Palmetto gave him a gun and badge.
Joe Rogers was with the Sarasota Police Department, but it let him go because he failed shooting tests to prove he could use his service weapon. Palmetto hired him and made him a detective.
Mica Mathews was a Manatee sheriff's deputy, until he resigned after he was caught lying on his time sheet. Palmetto put him on the force.
When Wells said, "Mica resigned," we agreed, but said he would have been fired if he didn't resign.
Wells defended Mica, saying, "He was a young kid at the front desk."
Of course, there are a few officers that Palmetto has fired. But it might surprise you how long it took them to do it.
Officer David Filipiak was investigated for dangerous use of force, and for pointing a taser at both a fellow cop and his own wife and children. After numerous suspension letters and reprimands, Chief Wells finally fired him. It took the department 11 years.
And how about Officer Luis Espindola? Espindola was cited for sleeping during a stakeout, lying on the job, crashing patrol cars, even losing his gun. After we began our investigation, Wells finally fired him too.
But Chief Wells says you can't blame him for the actions of these officers. He says, "Like any other organization, I came in here. If there were problems before I got here, they became my problems."
It might sound to you like Chief Wells is passing the buck. So we thought it might be a good idea to go to his boss: Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant.
Mayor Bryant hired Chief Wells, who is the son of longtime Manatee Sheriff Charlie Wells. The mayor hired him without even conducting a nationwide search, as is typical for such openings. But Mayor Bryant stands by the chief, saying, "I think what you're seeing is situations where there have been allegations, but in each and every case there has been exoneration."
That would be nice if it were true. But our check of the department's own records found that many of the complaints officers were sustained and did require action.
But is Chief Wells doing enough about it?
Bryant says, "I would have to say we have brought in a wonderful chief to do his job. Let him do it."
While clearly there are some decent law enforcement officers in Palmetto, many are embarrassed by the problem police on the force.
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