Lakeland creates police review panel

Police chief meets wtih State Attorney in private

BARTOW, Fla. - Lakeland's top cop met with Polk County's top prosecutor to discuss the scandals at  the police department that have divided the community and made the agency the butt of jokes around the country.

Lisa Womack arrived at the Polk County State Attorney's office at 10 a.m Friday  with an attorney, even though she hasn't been implicated directly in the scandals.

"He wasn't representing me as an attorney at all," said Womack.  "He just drove down with me.  In fact, he sat in the lobby most of the meeting," she said.

Womack was inside the office of Jerry Hill for an hour and a half for a meeting that was closed to the public.  Afterward, Womack said they discussed a variety of issues, including the controversies that have plagued the department.

"It was very productive," Womack said.

Hill declined to comment about the nature of the meeting.

Later in the day, Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields announced the assembly of a blue ribbon panel that will provide an independent review of the police department.

The Lakeland Police Advisory Commission will be headed by former Lakeland mayor Joe Ruthven, and Eileen Holden, president of Polk State College.  In addition, former mayor Frank O'Reilly, Anne Kerr of Florida Southern College, and several area business leaders and law enforcement experts will be on the panel.

"We can't un-ring the bell that's been rung.  But we can play a different instrument," said Fields, standing alongside Womack.  "We want to rebuild trust for those people who feel they have lost trust in the department or the city," Fields said.

The commission is expected to provide a report in the next 30-days, with a final evaluation due in 60-days, or 90, depending on how well the process goes.

Part of its job is to find out if there are enough protections for whistleblowers within the department, and how well the agency deals with people in the community.

The city is also organizing a "town hall" meeting where the public can voice concerns to the police chief and other city leaders.  It's tentatively scheduled for July 22 at the Lakeland Center, as City Hall is too small a venue, according to the city manager.

Meanwhile, the ongoing internal investigation into several officers accused of having consensual or forced sex with a civilian employee is close to completion, Womack said.  The police chief said she expected to announce punishments as early as Friday evening, or Monday.

The mayor said that there was continuing frustration that the process involving the investigation into the department wasn't more open to the public.  But Fields said he has to follow state law, which gives police officers a "bill of rights" that protects much of their privacy during investigations into their behavior.  

Fields said he hoped Lakeland residents will be patient enough to wait for the completion of the blue ribbon panel's report.

"I have shared with them the analogy:  you cannot grad the test after all we've done is written the name on top of the paper," Fields said  

"Give us a chance to finish the exam and we promise to deliver you A+ work."

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