It sounds like something out of a crime drama. A dirty cop plants drugs on people, then arrests them. But that’s what state investigators say happened in one North Florida County. There's no official database on the number of law enforcement officers arrested each year, but a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 found at least one officer is arrested every day.
Nearly 120 cases have been dropped and about a dozen lawsuits have been filed against the Jackson County Sheriff's Department. That’s where 26-year-old Zachary Wester worked as a deputy until last September when he was fired. Investigators say they spent hundreds of hours investigating Wester after the Jackson County Sheriff requested an independent inquiry. Among the evidence gathered: drugs in Wester’s patrol car.
"The investigation revealed 42 items of drug paraphernalia. Ten separately packaged quantities of methamphetamine and five separate quantities of marijuana," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent Chris Williams.
The department has logged more than 1,400 hours on the case. Jackson County is in the 14th Judicial District, but that prosecutor recused himself and Governor Ron DeSantis moved the case to 1st District State Attorney Bill Eddins, who says he’s prepared to go to trial immediately.
“The investigation had reached a point that I felt... it was appropriate…to seek an arrest warrant from a judge and have the defendant arrested.”
Wester is facing scores of felony and misdemeanor charges stemming from his arrests of 11 people. The most serious are felony charges of racketeering, which carry a minimum of 13.5 in prison. But, why did Wester plant drugs on people? And was he targeting anyone?
“You’re never certain of what lays at the heart of man," Eddins said. "We have some ideas and theories and we’ve talked about that a lot but I do not feel it would be appropriate to go into it in any detail at this time.”
What Eddins can say, is that there won’t be any deals. No plea bargains. No reduced charges.
“We believe they’re very serious and we expect to proceed… to the trial of these cases. My office has a history of taking a very strong position of in matters involving public employees and officials.”
There’s no official count on the number of crimes committed by or arrests of law enforcement so the U.S. Department of Justice commissioned a study. That 2016 report is called “Police Integrity Lost."
It examined the extent and nature of police crimes in the United States and looked into how agencies responded to officers arrested. Researchers at Bowling Green State University examined news reports of officers arrested between 2005-2011 and found about 1.7 officer arrests per 100,000 officers nationwide.
“It’s not that uncommon that police officers get in trouble," said former officer and Bowling Green State Assistant Professor Phil Stinson. He was the lead researcher on the 2016 DOJ study, and discussed the findings in an 2017 episode of his podcast.
"Police officers get arrested across the country, literally every day of the year across the U.S. where a police officer gets arrested and there’s an article or more than one article in the local newspapers about the alleged crimes.”
Stinson now runs a database that tracks officer arrests.
In the era of video, when people are recording and so are officers, Stinson says it’s likely more of them will be caught.
“With some of these devices, the camera is always on but it’s set up in a way that it records the 30 seconds prior to when the on switch is engaged. So, if an officer puts an on-switch on it will capture what happened in the seconds before it was on and keep that part of the recording. And what we’re seeing in some cases, is officers are being accused of planting evidence and didn’t think that through.”
That’s what happened in a similar case in Baltimore last year.
Florida investigators say Jackson County’s ex-deputy Wester manipulated his body camera to hide what he was doing. There are more than a million sworn law enforcement officers in the country, and the number of those arrested for crimes is relatively low. But each time it happens, State Attorney Eddins says it cuts to the heart of the criminal justice system.
A 2018 Gallop poll shows law enforcement is one of the most trusted institutions in the country, but there's little faith in the criminal justice system. And the FDLE's Chris Williams says Wester’s actions are another blow to public confidence.
“In this case, he clearly violated his oath of office. As a result of that, people lost their liberty based on his crimes.”
The case has left the Jackson County Sheriff's Department reeling.
“This is something we’re not proud of. No agency wants to go through this type of situation and face this sort of embarrassment from the public," said Sheriff Lou Roberts, who says he won't run for re-election after leading the department for 26 years.
Police crimes have real-world consequences. An arrest, even without a charge, is still a record and mugshots can live online in perpetuity. In Wester’s case, at least one of his alleged crimes cost a man custody of his daughter.
Wester's bond has been set at $170,000.