The future of the three deputies who were fired for their failures in the Parkland school massacre may come down to a key phrase left off investigative paperwork: “Under penalty of perjury, I declare that I have read the foregoing document and that the facts in it are true.”
Under Florida law, internal affairs investigators must swear, among other things, that they’ve read reports about officers in their entirety and that the forms are accurate. But the version of the oath that the Broward Sheriff’s Office used on its forms over the past decade omitted that one line — and no one had ever argued there was a need to include it.
Now, in one of the biggest police misconduct cases in South Florida, its omission may very well determine whether Sgt. Brian Miller and Deputies Joshua Stambaugh and Edward Eason get their jobs back.
The words also could end up costing more than $400,000 in back pay to the deputies, plus an unknown amount in legal fees.
The three deputies became symbols of the failed police response on the day when a teenage gunman murdered 17 staff and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Miller stood outside the school as shots rang out and his subordinates ran in.
Eason says he stayed on the school’s periphery, unsure of where the gunshots were coming from. But body camera footage recorded him telling people he heard shots fired — and pointing toward the school.
After Stambaugh arrived at the school, he drove to a nearby highway and looked on through field glasses.
Sheriff’s Internal Affairs Sgt. Carlos Carrillo completed a report April 8, 2019, into the actions of the three men. State law says that in order for the report to be completed, the investigating officer has to sign a written oath on the last page. Carrillo signed the oath on Page 123, the last page of the report.
But it didn’t include the crucial line, and the union representing the deputies called the agency out on it.
Arbitrators ruled that in the cases of Miller and Stambaugh, the report was not technically completed until June 25, 2019. That’s the day when Carrillo went back and, at the instruction of his superiors, added a 124th page to the report that included the absent phrase. The Sheriff’s Office added:
“I have read the foregoing report consisting of 124 pages, each of which has been initialed by this investigator, and the facts stated in it are a true and accurate representation of the investigation conducted based upon my personal knowledge, information and belief.”
That’s key, because state law gives police departments only 180 days to investigate and discipline officers.
A total of 193 days elapsed between the start of the investigation on Dec. 4, 2019, and the firing of Stambaugh and Eason on June 25. And 182 days elapsed between the start of the investigation and the firing of Miller on June 4.
“Its frustrating to us,” Terrence Lynch, general counsel of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, said Friday. “We have a lot of people here who worked very hard on these investigations, and they go for a very long period of time, obviously, and to get a decision based on not the facts of the case, but on a procedural issue?”
Some of the families who lost children in the massacre are more than frustrated. Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime Guttenberg, was one of the 17 people killed on Valentine’s Day 2018, said the omitted phrase exposes one more failure by the Sheriff’s Office.
“Infuriating,” Guttenberg said. “It’s sort of like everybody wants to move on and forget that this happened. If we do nothing for the 17 families, eventually people will forget."
The arbitrators who decide these cases are usually lawyers who specialize in labor law. Arbitration is guaranteed in many contracts for police and other unionized workers to protect their rights, but critics say arbitrators rule too often in favor of bad cops.
The Sheriff’s Office says it is already appealing the Miller ruling and plans to appeal the Stambaugh decision. Eason’s case will go in front of an arbitrator in October.
But representatives for the deputies' union place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Broward Sheriff’s Office. Its leader, Gregory Tony, fired the deputies after Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Scott Israel and appointed Tony as sheriff.
“The union always gets blamed for bringing back these so-called bad people that the agency has employed, but the problem is that it is the agency that does things wrong and we point out their errors and that’s what leads these people to come back,” said Jeff Bell, president of the union that represents sheriff’s deputies.
Miller, Eason and Stambaugh could not be reached for comment. Carrillo declined to comment.
The union first pointed out the issue with the end-of-report oath during arguments in the case of Moises Carotti, a deputy fired for sleeping on the job while guarding Stoneman Douglas in the months after the massacre.
The judge didn’t accept it as a defense in that case. But the arbitrators in the Stambaugh and Miller cases did, in part because union attorneys asked the arbitrators to throw the cases out on the 180-day violation, and without a hearing.
The Sheriff’s Office prevailed in Carotti’s case because it got a chance to state its position during a hearing. But it wasn’t given a chance with the arbitrators in the subsequent cases.
“That’s what we’re dealing with, that on this hyper-technicality, he [the arbitrator] is not even allowing us to have a hearing on this matter," Lynch said.
For the better part of the year after the Parkland massacre, the focus of the failure by the Broward Sheriff’s Office centered largely on two people: Scot Peterson, the school resource officer who took cover outside for 48 minutes, and Scott Israel, the sheriff.
But as the South Florida Sun Sentinel kept bringing to light the flaws in the Sheriff’s Office’s response, more cops became part of the probe.
Miller, the first officer on the scene, did not command anyone to enter the building and stayed outside even after deputies and officers entered. Miller did not get on the radio until about five minutes after he arrived, when he asked for a helicopter and K-9.
Citing the missing phrase, an arbitrator reinstated him in May, ruling that Miller, who pulled in more than $137,000 during his last full year on the job, be rehired with back pay including any overtime he likely would have earned as well as money from off-duty details, among other things.
That means Miller is likely to make at least $137,000 if the arbitrator’s ruling survives appeal, because it has been slightly more than a year since he was fired.
Stambaugh arrived on the scene about five minutes after the shooting began. Stambaugh got out of his vehicle, put on his bulletproof and then got back into his vehicle and drove away.
Stambaugh was terminated June 25, 2019.
This past Monday, another arbitrator cited the decision in Miller’s ruling while deciding in favor of Stambaugh.
Stambaugh, who made $152,857 on his last full year on the job, also may be reinstated with back pay, likely overtime, and money from off-duty details. He stands to make back whatever he would have normally made during that time if he were reinstated.
Eason, who was less than two miles away when the shooting started, did not move toward the gunfire. He was terminated the same week as Stambaugh.
Eason made $118,431 on his last full year on the job. If an arbitrator rules in his favor and reinstates him to his position, Eason stands to make at least that much if reinstated.
“The failure for [the Broward Sheriff’s Office] to timely comply with the statute only compounds this tragedy,” said Christopher Whitelock, a labor law attorney who represents officers and law enforcement agencies, but who isn’t involved in the Parkland deputies' cases.
“Something like the Stoneman Douglas incident should have never occurred, and unfortunately the statute only has a few and very specific exceptions and this sadly wasn’t one of them.”
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