LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — Authorities are investigating a widespread sex scandal involving nearly a dozen police officers in one Florida city after a civilian crime analyst detailed trysts with the men in police and fire stations, patrol cars, motels and even in a parking lot after a memorial service for a slain officer.
Sue Eberle, 37, has told officials that she had consensual and sometimes coerced sex with the officers and a firefighter, and that she once was propositioned by a city worker in Lakeland. Eberle’s accounts of the liaisons were largely corroborated by her sexual partners and others within the police department, and published in a graphic, 59-page report written in an incredulous tone by the county’s top prosecutor. It said the department’s problems investigating crimes might be caused by some high-ranking officers being more interested in having sex with Eberle than doing their jobs.
“The investigation revealed an extraordinary amount of sexual conduct that was committed both on-duty and off-duty,” wrote Jerry Hill, Polk County’s state attorney, in the report dated June 25. “We find the conduct of a number of sworn officers, including some officers of rank, to be at best a waste of taxpayer dollars. At worst their actions indicate a moral bankruptcy that exists amongst some individuals within the ranks at the Lakeland Police Department.”
Eberle, who has retained an attorney, recounted for Hill how she had sex in police cars, cemeteries and motels with different officers — and in the parking lot outside a reception that followed the December 2011 funeral of Officer Arnulfo Crispin, who had been fatally shot on duty. She also said officers and some supervisors pressured her for sex, groped her while working and texted her photos of their genitalia.
“She was a target. She was weak. And they knew that they could take advantage of that, so they preyed upon her. They preyed upon her, and that’s what’s so sick about it,” Eberle’s attorney, David Linesch, said during a recent news conference.
Linesch’s spokeswoman said Eberle is not granting interviews at this time. The Associated Press typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault. However, Eberle has gone public with her story, appearing alongside her attorney and husband at a recent news conference about the allegations.
Eberle, a married mother of two, is on paid administrative leave. Three city employees have resigned, and others — such as the former assistant chief of the department — have retired. Five other officers have been placed on either administrative leave or modified duty.
The scandal has stunned folks in Lakeland, a city of almost 100,000 people halfway between Tampa and Orlando.
“It’s been devastating for the community,” said Ellen Simms, who owns a framing shop in the city’s historic downtown. “The actions of a few are tarnishing the reputation of a good department. It’s heartbreaking.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating, while Hill’s office spent three months interviewing participants and witnesses. In his report addressed to Lakeland Police Chief Lisa Womack, Hill also drew parallels between the sex scandal and other “shortcomings” within the department, including recent problems with traffic stops, searches and investigations that have been detailed in The Ledger, Lakeland’s newspaper.
“Had these members of your department been more focused on the important responsibilities of law enforcement, rather than pursuing sexual encounters with a civilian analyst, LPD might not be in the condition it is today,” Hill wrote.
Womack wouldn’t comment on the report or the scandal — a Lakeland Police spokeswoman said all comments are being made from City Hall. Womack was an outsider who had worked in Illinois and Texas when she became the department’s chief in March 2011.
“Our hearts ache for Mrs. Sue Eberle and her family, the citizens of Lakeland, and all the families and children who have been affected by this tragedy,” Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields wrote in a statement.
Legislative leaders are furious and have asked Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd to help get the department on track.
“We find the State Attorney’s report on the behaviour of the LPD officials to be shocking, revolting and a clear cause for action,” wrote Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. “A culture which, at best lacks professionalism and at worst encourages the reckless behaviour of LDP officials, is apparently pervasive and is an embarrassment to our community. This culture has unfortunately eroded the public’s confidence in the Lakeland Police Department.”
Eberle, through her attorney and in the state attorney’s report, said she was unable to fend off the sexual advances because she has been a victim of sexual assault in the past. Initially, she didn’t want to speak with investigators — she balked at turning over her phone with text messages and photos, saying that it would hurt the officers’ families — but later decided to cooperate because she felt victimized and abandoned by the department.
Eberle also confided in a female officer friend, who initially doubted the stories until Eberle showed her some of the text messages and photos she had received from other officers. The friend told Hill that she thought Eberle’s desire to please, inability to say no and sexual promiscuity made her a target.
While seven officers admitted to having sexual contact with Eberle, three other sergeants denied her claims and refused to take polygraph tests; Hill said he questioned the credibility of those sergeants.
The report also said that other employees knew about the encounters and didn’t report it to higher-ups.
The state attorney said he couldn’t prosecute the cases because of a lack of physical evidence and because so much time has passed since some of the sexual encounters. However, Fields said the officers and employees involved are under an internal investigation and will be “disciplined to the fullest extent” if found to have acted inappropriately.
Judd, the sheriff, wouldn’t discuss the legislators’ proposal for him to help the department. But in an email to the AP, he said he was willing to help Lakeland.
“My whole family is from Lakeland. I grew up here,” Judd wrote. “I care about Lakeland, its reputation, and the quality of life we enjoy here. We cannot lose sight that there are many fine and hardworking officers at LPD who are outstanding public servants.”
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush
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