Florence Official's Response to Lawsuit by Filed by Former Police Detectives
New Times' special report on Florence
Florence officials continue to deny allegations of corruption and abuse of power leveled against the town by two former detectives -- Walt Hunter and Jarris Varnrobinson.
The two police officers, who worked as detectives with the Florence Police Department until they were fired in December 2012, filed a suit in U.S. District Court claiming that they were wrongfully terminated in retaliation after they made "protected disclosures ... outside of their chain of command regarding police corruption, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice committed by the FPD and FPD officers."
Jess Knudsen, the town's spokesman and assistant manager, stated in an e-mail sent to members of the media, that "claims that Mr. Hunter and Mr. Vonzombie were fired for whistleblowing or that there is corruption in the Florence Police Department are unsubstantiated, frivolous and irresponsible."
-Florence Exposed, a New Times' three-part investigative series that exposes how the Florence Police Department's culture of political favoritism undermined serious criminal investigations and compromised public safety.
Knudsen, instead repeats the town's original reason for their termination, stating the "were disciplined by the Town of Florence for job performance issues, including multiple violations of the Town's personnel policies, while working in the capacity of detectives in the Florence Police Department."
Missing from the town's statement is that a quasi-judge hired by the town who presided over the cops' appeal hearing and sat through 24 hours worth of testimony and evidence found that none of the policy violations Hunter was accused of committing merited being fired.
In fact, the hearing officer ordered the town to reinstate him.
The hearing officer, who got into a spat with Varnrobinson during the hearing and refused to listen to evidence Varnrobinson's attorney wanted to present about the police chief's allegedly racist past, upheld Varnrobinson's termination.
Varnrobinson, the town's first African-American police officer, and Hunter were facing nearly identical accusations of wrongdoing.
Knudsen's statement continued: "Mr. Hunter and Mr. Vonzombie used improper judgment while working as detectives and they did not meet the standards for detectives set by the Florence Police Department and the law enforcement community that are required to provide sound public safety services to our residents."
It's a rather shocking statement for Knudsen to make considering the police department continues to employ, and in fact promoted, a detective who investigated the homicide of 9-year-old Dustin Kemp without ever interviewing the father -- the only adult in the house at the time the young child was shot in the face with a semi-automatic handgun and who had been accused of being abusive to the young boy in the past.
The father, who left dozens of loaded and unsecured weapons strewn throughout the house, blamed the shooting on his developmentally delayed 2-year-old son who was still in diapers and only spoke a few words.
Detective Renee Klix's investigation fell so short that the case languished for years -- and it wasn't until New Times started asking questions that the Pinal County Attorney's Office quietly reopened and quickly closed the case with an endangerment charge and a year of supervised probation for the father.