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Fort Lauderdale cracks down on officers accepting freebies

By Brittany Wallman
Staff Writer
Posted January 28 2005

FORT LAUDERDALE -- The last person a police officer would want watching him
accept a free lunch is the city's new ethics watchdog.

But that's what happened to veteran Police Officer William Jacobsen in
September.
 
Jacobsen, with 23 years on the force and a $60,216 salary, is in hot water
for accepting a $5.50 lunch at Wendy's restaurant without paying for it.

He didn't know it at the time, but the city's new director of the Office of
Professional Standards, Robert Bates, was one of eight to 10 customers who
watched as Jacobsen was allowed to bypass their line -- and the cash
register.

An internal investigation concluded Jacobsen should be censured with a
"corrective counseling slip," which he signed Jan. 11. The matter heads to
the Citizen Review Board on Feb. 14.

"It was one of the most ridiculous investigations and ridiculous wastes of
time I've ever seen our department of Internal Affairs do," said Jack
Lokeinsky, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

New City Manager George Gretsas said he never lets anyone who does business
with the city pay for his lunch or buy him anything, and he put Bates, his
longtime friend and now colleague, in charge of completing a "zero
tolerance'' ethics policy for all employees, due out in about a week.

The pursuit of a new ethics policy has been under way for nearly a year and
is expected to more clearly spell out what is and isn't allowed.

Nevertheless, Bates told investigators he felt that he had witnessed a
serious ethical slip by Jacobsen that could feed public cynicism toward
police.

"I was a little embarrassed by what I had observed,'' Bates told police
internal investigator Sgt. Rick Maglione. "It is behavior, frankly, that is
somewhat disgraceful to think that a civil servant who has the duty to
protect and serve does this.''

Jacobsen arrived in full uniform at the Wendy's in the 1600 block of East
Sunrise Boulevard about 1 p.m., records show. Once inside, he loudly
announced that someone had parked illegally in a handicapped spot and should
move to avoid a ticket, Bates told investigators.

Then he walked to the counter, past the people in line, ordered "the usual''
and walked off with it, never offering to pay, Bates said.

In his new role, Bates dashed to his vehicle to grab his "little steno pad''
and quizzed customers, the manager and the officer himself.

"How do you explain yourself?'' Bates said he asked the officer after
showing him his city identification.

Sometimes it's harder to say no than to just take the salad and walk away,
Jacobsen told Bates and investigators.

Jacobsen told investigator Maglione that he has refused freebies in the
past, only to have the employee hold the money in the air and yell across
the room, "Come get your money. We don't take this!'' He continued, "I just
find it very demoralizing.''

Restaurants all over the country offer free or discounted meals and drinks
to police officers.

Wendy's corporate spokesman Bob Bertini in Dublin, Ohio, said some
restaurants do it "as a goodwill gesture, in gratitude for their service to
the community.''

Most departments, however, discourage or ban officers from accepting, said
Miami Police Sgt. James Mann, president of the state Fraternal Order of
Police union. But enforcement is rare.

"Businesses have complained that the department has no right to tell them
what they're going to charge a customer,'' Mann said. "It's just their way
of giving something back for the community service.''

Wendy's manager Julia Daniel told investigators that Bates told her "police
officers don't really need discounts because these guys make more than we
do, that they have benefits that we don't. They have a union.''

Though Gretsas contends the acceptance of discounts or free items has always
been against police policy, the police union president disagreed, saying
it's OK as long as officers don't "solicit'' an advantage.

"We always go in expecting to pay, and sometimes they flat-out refuse to
take your money,'' he said. "We usually leave a tip to cover the whole
thing."

Jacobsen is the first officer to face discipline over freebies since 1999.
Officer Kevin Shults was suspended for a day because he regularly took a
99-cent carton of milk from a convenience store, according to investigative
records. In that case, the storeowner complained.

This time, the merchant took the officer's side.

"I mean, we have crimes to solve,'' Wendy's manager Daniel told police in a
sworn statement. "They're worrying about us giving a guy a salad. I mean,
come on.''