A SWAT officer, part of the Jacksonville Sheriff Department, who was fired last year for driving drunk to a gun range, was reinstated this week with the department at his old salary, though likely in a much less hands-on capacity.
If you haven’t heard the tale of officer Nicholas Gifford, I’ll let First Coast News walk you through what that fateful day he was caught drunk driving into work looked like:
Gifford’s intoxicated condition was initially discovered Oct. 13 by fellow officers who saw him “swerving back and forth” while driving his city-issued car to the JSO Firing Range, some 30 miles from his home. Gifford admitted to his inebriated state when the officers confiscated his gun belt.
“I’m drunk,” he told them, according to an Internal Affairs report.
A series of breathalyzer tests taken more than three hours later confirmed it. Gifford blew a .316 — four times the state’s legal limit of .08, and a patent violation of JSO’s policy threshold of .00.
When questioned by Internal Affairs investigators on Oct. 14, the day after the incident, records show Gifford admitted he’d consumed a fifth of vodka before falling asleep around 3:30 a.m. – 4 ½ hours before his shift. He acknowledged having a serious drinking problem and reporting for work impaired previously, “probably five, 10 times.”
Imagine, if you drove drunk to your place of work where you’d also be handling a weapon. Do you think you’d get to keep your job? I sure wouldn’t, and I’m just some blogger (plus they haven’t issued Jalopnik service weapons since the Ray Wert days). Thankfully, this was just a training day and his fellow officers noticed right away that Gifford was impaired. Who knows how many times he showed up for shifts intoxicated and potentially interacted with the public during his eight years on the force.
To its credit, the Jacksonville Sheriff Department immediately suspended and later fired Gifford for violating their .00 policy. In December, he appealed his firing to the Civil Service Board, which found that Gifford’s firing was “manifestly unjust.” First Coast news points out that “manifestly unjust” is a legal term defined as “shocking to the conscience.”
Gifford was given a 90-day suspension, which was retroactively applied to his time since his firing, so he’s already back on the force. He’ll need to submit to three random breathalyzer tests per work cycle for the next year.
Gifford clearly has a problem, but there are some things an officer should lose his job for. Unfortunately, a cop getting a DUI isn’t all that rare for the JSO. Check out Gifford’s very depressing defense:
Fraternal Order of Police attorney Phil Vogelsang, who represented Gifford, didn’t dispute the facts of the case. But he noted the officer had no prior discipline. And he argued the firing was unfair since “multiple” off duty officers have gotten DUIs over the past year and received only suspensions.
“It is ‘manifestly unjust’ to treat an officer who gets a DUI in his personal car differently than an officer who ... is charged with administrative DUI in his JSO vehicle,” Vogelsang said. “They are the exact same thing. On or off duty does not matter.”
Standard length of officers suspended for DUI? Five days. Five freakin’ days. The JSO argued that no, being drunk and armed while driving a cruiser as a representative of the city is, in fact, very different from being pulled over in a personal car during off hours, but the board remained unconvinced. The JSO plans to appeal the ruling.
Even more depressing is that Gifford avoided criminal charges due to a bunch of technicalities because the police didn’t do their own police shit right. Remember that credit I just gave the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office? Consider it rescinded.
Ivey said the officers at the gun range called two different supervisors and got different instructions from each. One said to bring Gifford to Internal Affairs for a breath test; the other said not to remove him from the scene. The latter advice didn’t reach officers until Gifford was already headed downtown, Ivey said.
Gifford’s blood alcohol level was certainly high enough for a DUI conviction, but because the breath test was compulsory — part of JSO’s administrative investigation into his conduct — it could not be used as part of a criminal case. And removing Gifford from the scene complicated charging him criminally.
“From a criminal standpoint, you’ve already removed him from the scene, and you have all those challenges now,” Ivey explained. “You can order him to do the administrative blow, but you’ve essentially messed up the DUI investigation. So, that’s why. It would have been done, but those guys — experts on the SWAT side — they messed that up.”
According to the Internal Affairs report: “If proper enforcement action had been taken at the scene, a DUI investigation would have been warranted and would likely have resulted in a criminal prosecution.”
Now, don’t you feel so much safer Jacksonville?