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Expert says captain who altered records ‘should be censured’

STORY BY EILLEN KELLEY, (Week of May 3, 2012)
Photo: Captain Don Smith of Sheriff’s Office.

An Indian River County Sheriff’s Office captain – who altered public documents in an attempt to make it appear the barrier island and other areas in the county were being protected around-the-clock as claimed by Sheriff Deryl Loar – may have violated state law, said the president of the First Amendment Foundation, a watchdog group for journalists.

“There are penalties under Florida law for falsifying public records,” said Barbara A. Petersen, “but regardless of whether the captain violated the law, his actions in falsifying and altering a public record in an attempt to mislead the public are outrageous and should be censured.

“These were documents relating to public safety,” Petersen said. “The media was responding to questions concerning public safety in requesting the records. That an officer of the law would alter the public records requested – to provide false information about significant public safety concerns – should not be tolerated.”

An examination of the February records by 32963 prior to their alteration revealed the north end of the island did not have a dedicated patrol officer 15 percent of the time while the south end of the island was without a dedicated deputy 21 percent of the time.

Loar has had no public comments on these findings, or on the alteration of public records.

Should state investigators decide to look into the changes in public records, it will be another instance where the actions of Capt. Don Smith have come under the microscope.

Smith, who has been with the department since 1986, was promoted to captain in 2006. Shortly after Loar took over the Sheriff’s Office three years later, he was demoted to lieutenant.

Smith’s personnel file indicates he was part of a group of law enforcement officers in late 2002 that downplayed an incident involving a drunken deputy who had to be pepper sprayed after hitting another deputy. The incident happened when deputies responded to an alcohol-fueled domestic dispute between a combative sergeant and his wife along the side of the road. Smith and two others were reprimanded while others were suspended.

The internal affairs records on the 2002 incident and 2003 investigation have been purged, a routine procedure after a certain amount of time has passed.

A citizen’s complaint in 2004 filed with department’s internal affairs office also is noted on Smith’s record, although details have also been purged.

Smith got into trouble in 2009 and was suspended for three days for violating two policies.

Still, within six months of the suspension, he was promoted back to a captain’s rank again after Loar began to lose command staff.

An internal affairs investigation began in April 2009 when Smith – then a lieutenant – and another sheriff’s official were accused by Fellsmere police of questioning whether a man found dead in the street of a stab wound was U.S. citizen.

After learning that the victim was from Mexico, Smith refused to call in a victim’s assistance worker to meet the victim’s family members at the hospital, something that is routine after a homicide.

“If the victim is illegal, the Sheriff’s Office will not pay for overtime for a victim’s advocate or assistance and I will not authorize them to respond,” an officer recounted Smith as saying after the homicide in Fellsmere.

The following day, someone from the Sheriff’s Office victim’s assistance group contacted Fellsmere police and apologized, saying that Florida statutes required them to respond around the clock when called after such an event.

The internal affairs report states that while under oath during the investigation, Smith admitted to saying, “I’m not sure about the request for victim’s assistance because they are all friggin’ aliens out there.”  That admission cost him a suspension.

Two weeks ago, Smith admitted to a reporter in front of Loar that he had changed public documents regarding patrol zones after they were requested by Vero Beach 32963. Loar appeared unfazed by the admission.

Both Loar and Smith told a reporter that the barrier island is covered around the clock by a patrol deputy and that the documents altered by Smith reflected that.

The problem was Smith had handwritten in the names of three people who are not patrol officers, including one deputy who has a desk job Monday through Friday. Smith also added to the lineups the name of a traffic sergeant, who was in fact on vacation on some of the days Smith claimed he was designated as a backup patrol officer.