Cary McMullen: Lakeland police chief on the firing line

When it comes to law enforcement agencies, Polk County and its largest city, Lakeland, offer a study in contrasts. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd – despite his flair for publicity-seeking – is generally regarded as running a model department.

The Lakeland Police Department hasn’t had the benefit of leadership of Judd’s caliber. Several years ago, the department lost its accreditation, the result of lax policies. This year, a seemingly unending series of controversies and scandals have riven the LPD.

An abbreviated rundown of the problems includes the following:

— LPD Chief Lisa Womack is engaged in an ongoing feud with the local paper, The Ledger, over access to arrest records that are supposed to be public.

— A grand jury inquiry into the department resulted in a presentment that the city has spent more than $200,000 in legal fees to keep sealed. A lot of people wonder why the city is fighting so hard to keep it secret.

— The big one: A sex scandal that involved more than 20 city workers and officers, including three sergeants, a lieutenant and a captain. Some of the behavior predates Womack’s hiring in 2010, but how she has handled it is the question. More than a dozen officers and employees have resigned or been fired or disciplined.

— State Attorney Jerry Hill has made the LPD his own personal project. He has sent approximately seven letters to Womack since March, criticizing the way she has handled cases, including an officer who falsified DUI reports with a superior’s guidance. Hill has declared his office will no longer accept testimony from at least two officers, effectively rendering them useless for law enforcement. Hill has repeated his criticism in published interviews and in a public address.

— Just when it seemed things were stabilizing, Officer Julio Pagan was arrested for pressuring a woman to have sex with him while he was on duty, in uniform and armed. The victim’s calls to 911 complaining about the officer were ignored.

Womack has helped the department regain its accreditation. She may have inherited some of this mess, but the feeling among some local leaders – including members of the Polk County legislative delegation – is that Womack has not been decisive enough. The most obvious solution might be to force her out and bring in a new chief, but the situation is complicated by the role of City Manager Doug Thomas and City Commission politics.

Thomas has held his post since 2003, long enough to have known that something was rotten at the heart of LPD. He hired Womack and has been unwavering in his support of her. Thomas in turn has the support of Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, who is running for re-election.

Opposing Fields on the ballot is Commissioner Howard Wiggs, who has been making political hay out of the situation and recently called outright for the ouster of both Thomas and Womack. Wiggs has a tendency to lean whichever way the political wind is blowing, so he may have the right position for the wrong reason.

One responsible commissioner, Don Selvage, has decided the problems are too great and called for Thomas and Womack to go. Two commissioners have sided with Fields and two have not committed, preferring to wait for the report of a citizens’ committee that Fields hastily threw together.

Fields has done a fair job as mayor, but for reasons that are unclear, he has thrown his weight behind Thomas, and the two are dug in together, refusing to budge. The election will likely become a referendum on the LPD, in which case the fate of Thomas and Womack will rest on the will of the voters. If Wiggs wins, expect a shakeup.

Womack’s challenge is to change a longstanding culture of unprofessional and undisciplined conduct, which would be a tall order for any chief. Given time, she might pull it off, but for a public wondering if they can trust their cops, time is not her ally.

Guest Author


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