People expect law enforcement officers to “protect and serve.”
That is, after all, their jobs. Part of that job is ensuring that others
follow the laws of the state of Florida and when others do not follow
the laws and commit crimes, it is the job of the police to arrest them.
So what happens when it’s the police officers themselves who commit the crimes? Should they be held to the same standard as any other criminal defendant? Should they be held to a higher standard? Should they receive the same plea offers as any other defendant or should their cases go to trial so that the judge, and not the prosecutors, are responsible for their sentences?
A number of these questions arise in the case of Michael Dodson, a Riviera Beach police officer who recently plead guilty to reduced charges in a shooting case. Dodson allegedly fired 15 rounds from his service revolver while off duty after a night of drinking. After firing his weapon, he slashed himself with a box cutter and hit himself with a hammer before calling 911 to report that two masked men attacked him and that he fired his revolver at them in self-defense.
Dodson was originally charged with shooting into a building, a second degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison, as well as false report of a crime, a first degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. Instead, he plead guilty to using a firearm while under the influence of alcohol and disorderly intoxication, both second degree misdemeanors, punishable by 60 days in jail at most. He received a year of probation and no jail time as conditions of the negotiated plea.
The facts and circumstances of Dodson’s plea bring up a number of
questions. When police officers receive favorable plea deals from the
prosecutors they often work with, members of the public sometimes suspect
collusion. Of course, it’s impossible to know why the prosecutor
in Dodson’s case gave him the deal he received. There may have been
extenuating circumstances or a difficulty in proving the charges. However,
there will always be the appearance of impropriety whenever you have a
police officer defendant getting the deal of a lifetime from the state
while other defendants are serving prison sentences for the same crimes.
The actual reason for the plea sometimes falls on deaf ears in the face
of conspiracy theories.
What to do? One thing the state could do is only charge the crimes they can prove – and then prove them. Take the case to trial or force the defendant to plead guilty straight to the judge with no promises of reduced charges from the prosecutors. By doing this, there could be no appearance of impropriety. But, then police officer defendants are being held to a higher standard – not receiving the benefit of a plea offer that any other defendant may get. Is it fair to penalize the police defendant in order to avoid bad appearances?
Many questions are still left open as more and more police officers are arrested in Palm Beach County on a daily basis. Time will tell if the next one gets such a sweet deal. In the meantime, according to the Palm Beach Post, Dodson is still working for the Riviera Beach Police Department, on restricted administrative assignment, pending an investigation.