A Marco Island police officer begins formal disciplinary proceedings Tuesday afternoon that could lead to the end of his career as a law enforcement officer in Florida.
Officer Stephen Mariani faces three counts of excessive use of force before a review panel of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, stemming from his battery of three suspects in the back of his police car in February.
Mariani, 50, struck and pepper sprayed the handcuffed suspects while driving to the Collier County jail, following a drunken brawl outside a Marco Island comedy club. The incident was caught on Mariani’s in-car video.
Mariani was ordered to take six months of anger management classes in September as part of a criminal plea agreement. The Marco Island Police Department suspended Mariani without pay for two weeks, assigned him to desk duty for 51⁄2 months and placed him on probation for six months, ending this February. He returned to active duty Aug. 22.
FDLE review is required in cases like Mariani’s. Tuesday, that review begins when Mariani faces a jury of his police officer peers at FDLE headquarters in Tallahassee.
The panel, known as the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, functions like a bar association for police officers, according to Jim Sewell, a retired FDLE assistant and deputy commissioner.
“For cops, it’s the same kind of licensing board as doctors have and lawyers have,” Sewell said.
At today’s hearing, the panel has a few options. It can do nothing, formally agree with the discipline taken by the Marco police department, suggest further discipline or find probable cause that Mariani violated FDLE standards.
If the panel finds probable cause, a subsequent hearing could result in the loss of Mariani’s law enforcement certification, meaning he could not work as a police officer in Florida.
Marco Island Police Chief Thom Carr could not be reached for comment Monday. Police Capt. Dave Baer said Carr was en route to Tallahassee with Mariani.
Carr has said he expected the panel would find probable cause and review the case further, but hoped ultimately the FDLE would agree with the punishment he gave Mariani.
Baer said there have been no complaints against Mariani since he returned to active duty.
According to FDLE statistics, nearly three-quarters of the 120 cases against law enforcement officers that have come before the panel this year have resulted in findings of probable cause. Of those 120 cases, five were for excessive use of force.
In the past year when the FDLE took additional disciplinary action, it resulted in the offending officer having his certification revoked or voluntarily relinquishing it more than 60 percent of the time.
But Sewell said the FDLE usually concurs with the discipline taken by an agency against one of its officers.
“Very rarely will you see the commission take one stand and the agency another,” Sewell said.
Meanwhile, comments made when Mariani’s in-car video was published are stirring as much controversy as the incident itself.
After seeing the video, Marco Island City Council Vice Chairman Frank Recker, who is a dental malpractice and health care law attorney, called the three suspects in the back of Mariani’s police car, “out of control baboons” and thanked Mariani for his actions. Recker also considered drafting a letter to urge council support for Mariani in advance of today’s FDLE hearing.
“I think they’re extremely lucky to leave Marco breathing,” Recker said of the three suspects, who were involved in a fight with Mariani and other Marco police officers prior to their arrest. “I think the cop’s only mistake was not using enough Mace.”
Recker’s words caught the notice of prominent local defense attorney Jerry Berry of Berry, Day, McFee & Martin.
Berry believes Recker’s comments were so reckless, he should no longer be a councilman.
“Councilman Recker should be, either by the voters or by impeachment, removed from office,” Berry said. “It’s amazing that an elected official, who is an attorney, would make public statements encouraging police officers to abuse their authority, encouraging officers to beat and pepper spray handcuffed arrestees, and to say that if he were the officer he would have killed the teenagers before they left Marco.”
Berry added that Recker’s comments opened the city to a larger liability should a lawsuit be brought against the police department and could have damaged Marco’s reputation nationally.
Told Berry’s reaction, Recker said it wasn’t surprising, given Berry’s choice of career.
“My response is Jerry Berry is a good defense attorney and I would expect him to say that,” Recker said. “I am an elected official concerned with the health, safety and welfare of Marco Island. So we each have our own perspective.”
Recker added his concern with Marco’s citizens led him to make his initial statements.
“Bottom line is we’re all human and I for one am very passionate about the safety and welfare of the people of Marco, which resulted in some strong comments,” he said.
Recker continues to support Mariani, and hopes the FDLE agrees with the city’s disciplinary actions.
Mariani and Recker both have an ally in City Councilman Rob Popoff. Popoff called the three suspects in Mariani’s car “animals” and said the officer’s actions were “a little over the top,” but Mariani also behaved “as a professional.” Popoff added he wished he’d been there from the beginning of the fight.
“If (the three suspects) ever plan a trip to Marco again, I’d like them to call me first so I’ll know where they are,” Popoff said.
Popoff said Recker originally made “a poor choice of words,” but called his comments “dead on.”
“I support Frank 100 percent on this,” Popoff said.