Firing police chief and city manager isn't on list of recommendations to boost Lakeland PD's reputation

10/21/13 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:
Tags: Lisa Womack, Doug Thomas, Lakeland Police, Sue Eberle, Lakeland County Commission

Groups including the local newspaper are calling for the firing of Lakeland Police Chief Lisa Womack and city manager Doug Thomas after a series of scandals have shaken the city. During a meeting Monday, Bruce Abels with the Lakeland Police Advisory Committee went through a list of 22 recommendations to boost the agency’s faltering reputation.

"We need to add a duty to report and a duty to observe the city's values to the employee policy manual. And with that is a guarantee that if they do that every employee will be protected both from retaliation and from the fear of retaliation."

That particular tip to city officials comes after a series of sex scandals that implicated 20 city employees – mostly within the Lakeland Police Department. The controversy was brought to light after crime analyst Sue Eberle came forward with allegations of sexual behavior with numerous employees. Police Chief Womack and the man she answers to, city manager Thomas fell under harsh criticism for not uncovering the problems sooner. Abels defended the ignorance.

"People who cheat on their spouses or screw around with a co-worker generally don't talk about it. That's college locker room stuff, they don't talk about it."

But sex scandals were just the beginning of Lakeland PD’s headache. Over the past year, the agency has been criticized for mishandling DUI cases, several officers have been barred from testifying in cases by the State Attorney and they’re being sued by the Lakeland Ledger over poor handling of public records requests.

"The newspaper's agenda is to fire the city manager and the chief of police. I don't know what it's going to take to get them away from that agenda other than the firing of the city manager and the chief of police. I do think if you were to take a vote, this is not my personal opinion but if you were to take a vote and it supported them, I don't know what they're faced with then, do you just continue beating that drum?"

During discussions, only one speaker out of nine during public comment echoed that agenda. Bartow resident Kevin Kaden said city officials have only been looking at recent scandals under Womack’s name. He pointed out that there were similar controversies in a department she ran in a town outside of Chicago called Elgin.

"You see, they don't want you to know about Elgin because without Elgin Lisa Womack is a first time offender. She's created an Animal House atmosphere with a culture of drinking, a sexual atmosphere that's winked at and where cheating on paperwork, complying with Florida laws, and even the Constitution is just another cat and mouse game."

Other speakers supported retaining the two department heads to let them continue to improve the police agency. Keyno Hicks, a regular speaker during meetings on this issue, said a solution can’t be one-sided.

"Instead of calling for pounds of flesh, 'oh we want to fire this one and fire that one', I ask people to support Mayor Fields with his more balanced approach to solving the problems here at the Lakeland Police Department."

City Commissioners will have to decide whether or not to hire Thomas and Womack, but the advisory committee’s Abels hinted doing so may be more of a headache than it’s worth.

"If you think your life's difficult now, you can see the challenges and you start to think about what would be involved with replacing them."

Commissioner Howard Wiggs who is running for mayor, was the only commissioner to directly challenge Thomas and Womack’s employment. He claimed residents and city employees are looking for more than just changes to policies, they’re looking for a change in management.

"These are very important things. To think we've solved this thing or we've got everything in place to solve it, is just not the case."

But Thomas defended both himself and Chief Womack.

"I think it's fair to say that all of us, even yourself and your own business probably manage your operation differently now then you did ten years ago. Two years ago, a year ago. There are things, when I talk about lessons learned, it's not just about discipline and actions it's about what did we do right and what did we do wrong? I mentioned to one of your colleagues earlier when asked did we do everything exactly the way, if I can do it all over again would you do things differently? Absolutely, because we've learned through this process. We're not just going to continue to not benefit from that, from the knowledge that we've learned going through this."

Among the list of recommendations are changes to various policies, more open lines of communication with employees and residents and a review of the agency’s operations. And Womack said the agency has already started implementing changes within the department to avoid any further scandal.

"We are also sending our new officers to court preparation, report writing training that is being conducted by the state's attorney's office for all agencies in the county for new officers. We will be sending an additional group to a second session of that sometime this month or next month."

Womack said the agency has also improved its DUI policies and will require officers of the same sex to conduct physical searches in response to criticism of an officer who forced a woman to lift her shirt and shake her bra during a traffic stop. Another recommendation from the advisory committee included commending Chief Womack and City Manager Thomas on their responsiveness to issues plaguing the police department.

Recommendations from LPAC by Janelle Irwin

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