At Florida State, Football Clouds Justice

FSU-master675TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The 911 call could not have sounded more urgent: A man was beating a woman holding a baby outside their apartment as she tried to leave.

“You just need to get someone out here right away because it is really bad,” the caller said, adding that the man was “punching” the mother and “grabbing the little baby around the arm.”

By the time the police arrived shortly after 3 a.m. one day last January, the couple were back inside. The 19-year-old woman acknowledged that she and her boyfriend had argued, and that he had not wanted her to leave. But she insisted nothing physical had occurred.

Officers responding to a domestic violence call have a legal duty to investigate thoroughly, seek written statements from witnesses and from the victim, instruct the victim on how to seek help and, finally, forward their report to the local domestic abuse crisis center. But, according to their brief report on the episode, the officers did none of that.

They did, however, find the case significant enough to notify their sergeant — “due to the fact that it was an F.S.U. football player,” the report said. The sergeant, a Florida State University sports fan, signed off on it and the complaint was filed away as “unfounded.”

It was hardly the first time that the towering presence of Florida State football had cast a shadow over justice in Tallahassee.

Last year, the deeply flawed handling of a rape allegation against the quarterback Jameis Winston drew attention to institutional failures by law enforcement and Florida State officials. The accuser’s lawyer complained that detectives had seemed most interested in finding reasons not to pursue charges against Mr. Winston, a prized recruit who went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead his team to a national championship.

Now, an examination by The New York Times of police and court records, along with interviews with crime witnesses, has found that, far from an aberration, the treatment of the Winston complaint was in keeping with the way the police on numerous occasions have soft-pedaled allegations of wrongdoing by Seminoles football players. From criminal mischief and motor-vehicle theft to domestic violence, arrests have been avoided, investigations have stalled and players have escaped serious consequences.

In a community whose self-image and economic well-being are so tightly bound to the fortunes of the nation’s top-ranked college football team, law enforcement officers are finely attuned to a suspect’s football connections. Those ties are cited repeatedly in police reports examined by The Times. What’s more, dozens of officers work second jobs directing traffic and providing security at home football games, and many express their devotion to the Seminoles on social media.

Certainly, Florida State football players have not always sidestepped prosecution. Over the last three years, at least nine players have been arrested on charges ranging from sexual assault to being an accessory to a fatal shooting.

But on other occasions, despite strong evidence, investigations have been delayed and sometimes derailed.

When Jesus (Bobo) Wilson, an up-and-coming wide receiver, was stopped by the Tallahassee police in June while riding a stolen Bintelli Sprint motor scooter, his story was dubious: He claimed he had borrowed it from a student whose last name he did not know. But for Officer Michael Petroczky, it was convincing enough to forestall an arrest.

The officer, noting in his report that Mr. Wilson was a Florida State football player, wrote: “Wilson was not arrested today because he cooperated, showed no signs of guilt and provided a plausible story that needs to be investigated.”

For more info: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/us/florida-state-football-casts-shadow-over-tallahassee-justice.html?_r=0

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