Wednesday, November 25, 2020

City Loses Arbitration Case Against Officer


Photo by Steve Stefanides


Earlier last week an arbitrator came forward and ruled that the City of Marco Island would have to restore formerly dismissed police officer Tige Thompson to his position as a patrolman with the island departmentMarco Island also must compensate Thompson for back pay since his May 2019 dismissal. 

Last year, Thompson was terminated from his position by former Acting City Manager David Harden, following an internal investigation. That investigation was initiated by former Police Chief Al Schettino, after the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) chose to not prosecute a highly publicized case in December 2018, resulting from a standoff with both Marco Island Police and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. The SAO did so because Thompson had been one of the first officers on the scene to interact with the subject. 

That subject was initially charged with three felony counts as a result of the incident, but the SAO would later choose not to proceed to prosecute those charges, and identified Thompson’s role as the reason, causing an uproar within the community. 

Long History of Problems 

Problems regarding Thompson have a long historical background. The Office of the State Attorney, 20th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida came forward as early as 2011 to make the Marco Island Police Department aware of their concerns involving testimony by then Sergeant Tige Thompson, regarding a DUI arrest.  

Those concerns were made directly to then Police Chief Thom Carr. They would advise him that they would not be proceeding regarding the prosecution of a case due to what they described as the tainted testimony provided by Thompson and the corroborating time stamped audios which substantiated the SAO’s concerns. 

At that meeting the State Attorney’s Office requested Marco investigate those concerns and provided the corroborating information to Carr’s office. They never received a response from the Marco Department. 

Hunter Assumes Command 

The SAO would return a second time to make those same concerns known to then Chief Don Hunter. Hunter assumed command of the department after the retirement of former Chief Thom Carr. The SAO advised Hunter that Thomson was now considered to be unreliable and was being placed on the “Brady List.”  

The case of Brady vs. Maryland (1963) affirmed the responsibility of the prosecution to declare to the defense any exculpatory evidence. That would include the reliability of witnesses, otherwise it amounts to a due process violation. 

New trials have been granted for defendants when it has been revealed that officers have had disciplinary action taken against them by their departments for breaching ethical guidelines and the moral standards of the position they hold. These actions are a direct result of the prosecution not revealing an officer’s background to the defense. 

Hunter would turn the SAO’s concerns over to Lt. Linda Guerrero, who at that time headed the Investigative Bureau for the department. At the same time, Chief Hunter removed Thompson from the Patrol Division and transferred him to the Investigative Bureau. 

However, that internal investigation went nowhere and was not pursued by either Chief Hunter or his assignee. 

It was ironic that it was Hunter, who during his long tenure as the Collier County Sheriff in 2004who would subsequently dismiss Thompson from that agency for his failure to be truthful regarding the taking of indecent photos of women at the annual Naples Great Dock Canoe Races in 2004 while on duty at that event. 

Some questioned why Hunter did not take more aggressive action when notified by the SAO of the issues concerning Thompson, given his past issues with the officer, rather than let it languish in a desk drawer. 

Schettino Assumes Chief’s Position 

On January 26, 2015, the State Attorney’s Office met with newly appointed Police Chief Al Schettinoprovided him with the file on Thompson, and explained their requests to former Chiefs Carr and Hunter. On February 2, 2015, the SAO provided Schettino’s office with an official notification of Thompson’s status and the inability to use him for testimony. 

Schettino immediately transferred Thompson from the Investigative Bureau back to patrol, so as to minimize any exposure to major cases and possible contamination from that exposure. At the same time, an Internal Affairs Case was activated for review regarding the situation with Thompson. 

That investigation was completed in April of 2016. However, discipline could not be imposed due to the case being over the 180-day time limit under the provisions of state law. Thompson had initially been issued a notice to employee on May 21, 2014, which had started the 180-day clock. 

On July 5, 2016 Schettino would sustain the violations of truthfulness, integrity and non-compliance with directives as based upon the Internal Investigation which was ordered. However, because it went beyond the 180-day window, no additional discipline by the department was allowed. 

Schettino had his interpretation and case file reviewed by city legal staff, who agreed the window to bring action had long been closed. 

Schettino would also provide the case file to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for their review and possible disciplinary action. They reviewed the file and declined to take further action. 

Schettino’s office again submitted the same information to the FDLE in May of 2018. Once again, the agency declined to take any action to revoke the certification of Thompson’s law enforcement credentials. 

Schettino would once more confer with the city’s legal representatives and was advised that they saw no way forward on the potential for disciplinary action. Schettino’s hands were essential tied, but he would provide the Acting City Manager David Harden with his investigative files 

At that timein February of 2019, Thompson was placed on administrative leave. Thompson was finally terminated by Harden in May 2019, due to his inability to fully perform his duties as it related to testifying in court. 

Arbitrator Finds in Favor of Officer 

The Arbitrator would find that the City of Marco Island failed to provide any evidence of wrongdoing, with the exception of the SAO’s decision to not accept testimony from Thompson. The Arbitrator required that the city return Thompson to his previous job assignment and pay him all back pay since his severance by then Acting City Manager David Harden.  

It is unclear whether Thompson’s legal fees will be also be reimbursed by the city. However, the city will have incurred substantial legal fees defending their actions, in addition to well over $60,000 in back pay. 

Chief Tracy Frazzano, the new head of the Marco Island Police Department since late last year, will now have to review with City Manager Michael McNees how to proceed, based upon the Arbitrator’s ruling. It is unclear what options are available to them. 

Frazzano Now Dealing With Another Dismissal 

Since taking the position as Police Chief, Frazzano has also had to deal with the firing of another officer, John Derrig in January of this year. That firing was a result of another investigation initiated by Acting Police Chief David Baer and would be Derrig’s third dismissal from the department. Derrig had been dismissed twice before by the department, once under Chief Carr and the second time by Chief Hunter; both times an arbitrator ruled Derrig should be returned to duty. 

The decision in regard to whether or not Derrig was to be dismissed would be made by Chief Frazzano. Upon making that decision, she forwarded her finding to City Manager Michael McNees. The city moved ahead with a dismissal order formally charging Derrig with failure to respond to medical calls, untruthfulness during the investigation, failure to follow direct orders from supervisors, and unauthorized use of departmental time. 

It is anticipated that Officer Derrig will once again file a grievance and the same process will again be enacted. The city will have to wait on the ruling from a third party (Arbitrator) before any final resolution is reached in regard to the disposition of this case. 

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