Is Orange sheriff just paying lip service to oversight?

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Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings is calling for a citizen review board to investigate allegations of excessive force and other wrongdoing by deputies.

For example, there was that time in January when they seemed to compete over who could empty their 9mm clips the fastest, firing off more than 100 rounds in a Pine Hills apartment complex at one guy in a stolen SUV. Bullets flew everywhere, including into an occupied unit.

I generally support cops, but some oversight seems to be in order.

The problem is Demings' credibility. Last year, he took part in dissolving an oversight board much like the one he is calling for. This new version seems nothing more than a watered-down version of the original.

The man Demings wants to lead the board, the Rev. Randolph Bracy, the head of the local NAACP, doesn't even know what power he would have to investigate abuses or do anything about them.

"It's a good question, and I really don't have an answer,'' he says.

For some clues, let's review what happened to the original review board. It was approved by voters in 1992 and became part of the county charter.

Everybody got along great. The board worked at the Sheriff's Office and sided with the agency 95 percent of the time. Think of the Minerals Management Service regulating BP.

"We historically had no problem with deputies not appearing [to testify]," said former chairman Richard Dellinger. "When we met in the Sheriff's Office and it wasn't televised, deputies felt more comfortable appearing in front of the board."

But in 2004, critics complained the board was too cozy with the Sheriff's Office. County Commissioner Homer Hartage then worked out a deal with Sheriff Kevin Beary to transfer the board from the sheriff's oversight to the County Commission's oversight. It was all downhill from there.

The board began having meetings in commission chambers. Deputies began balking about testifying in televised meetings.

Then in November 2004, the board ruled against a deputy in a very high-profile shooting of an unarmed black man who had been misidentified as a murder suspect. The Sheriff's Office had exonerated the deputy. So had I in a column.

Beary and his deputies stopped cooperating with the board altogether.

"I think that the review board has gone astray, and I am tired of getting beat up by it," Beary said in 2005.

Minus his cooperation, the panel attempted to subpoena a deputy in an alleged excessive-force case. Beary and the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represented the deputy, challenged its authority to do so.

An Orange County circuit judge upheld the board's subpoena power in 2008. Beary appealed, and Demings continued the appeal after taking office in January 2009.

Demings prevailed. The court threw out the charter amendment that established the board. That was the end of the board.

There was talk that Demings would work with the county in coming up with a new panel, but nothing happened. My guess is that he was in no hurry to antagonize his deputies after taking office, particularly since most supported his opponent in the 2008 election. Cops hate citizen review boards, although I doubt they have much to fear from Demings' plan.

He announced it this week during a news conference about his office's controversial arrest of a 14-year-old boy accused of trying to abduct a toddler that the teen seemed to be trying to help. You might have seen detectives parading him in front of TV cameras.

Demings says he will appoint the chairman. Each of the seven county commissioners also will appoint members, assuming they go along with the idea. Generally, commissioners like some say over boards that bear their appointees.

"Actually I don't know why he is doing this under the Sheriff's Office," Commissioner Linda Stewart said. "People might think it is the fox watching the chickens."

The commission should make sure that doesn't happen. It should have no part of a board that is not independent and free to pursue abuses. Then we'll see how committed Demings is to oversight.

Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or mthomas@orlandosentinel.com.
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