PALM BEACH, Fla. â€” From its long abandoned practice of ticketing shirtless joggers and issuing ID cards to gardeners, the rules in Palm Beach have always been different.
Now, in response to complaints from town residents who agree that rules on the tiny island should be different, police officers are being investigated and fired for writing too many traffic tickets.
Officer William Eaton, who has patrolled the town’s ficus-lined streets for six years, was fired this week. Union leaders say two other officers face similar fates.
In a termination letter signed Tuesday, the town’s director of public safety says Eaton’s ticket-writing frenzy violated several department rules, including conduct unbecoming and using his position to intimidate the citizenry. His attorney views it differently.
“It was a clear and utter witch hunt,” said attorney Elizabeth Parker, who said Eaton will fight to be reinstated.
She doesn’t dispute that the number of traffic tickets Eaton wrote soared, going from 222 citations in 2011 to 115 in one month this year.
However, she claims Eaton began writing more tickets when the town in January changed how raises are handed out. When they switched to a bonus system based on merit, instead of longevity, Eaton decided he needed to work harder to ensure he would be among the top officers who received a possible $6,000 bonus.
Public Safety Director Kirk Blouin said Eaton’s sudden and intense interest in traffic enforcement was more sinister. In the termination letter, he said it was retaliation for the contract changes and the town’s decision to reduce police pension benefits.
He recalled a conversation he had with Eaton several years back when the pension changes were first proposed. “What are they going to do when we start writing them all tickets and arresting them for DUI?” Blouin recalled Eaton asking. At the time, Blouin said he viewed the comment as a threat to retaliate against town residents if pension benefits were cut. He said he warned Eaton that such conduct could result in his termination.
In a 19-page letter to Blouin, Parker said Eaton was merely questioning whether the town’s unwritten rule of being more lenient toward residents than nonresidents when it comes to drunken driving would remain if police were pushed to do more while getting less.
At that time, she said, the pay changes hadn’t even been proposed. Eaton, who has gotten stellar reviews, never intended the comment as a threat, she said.
Further, the evidence shows he didn’t target town residents. Of the 115 tickets he wrote from mid-January to mid-February, only 24 â€” 20 percent â€” went to town residents. She also gave examples where Eaton ignored obvious violations, such as inoperable brake lights or not having proof of insurance, and only gave residents warnings.
The only thing both agree on is that the stepped up traffic enforcement has been controversial.
Beginning in January, Blouin wrote that he began getting complaints from residents, accusing the agency of setting up speed traps. At a February town meeting, Councilman Robert Wildrick said police were “harassing and intimidating” residents because of the pension plan changes. Blouin responded: “I share some of your concerns. We have a small percentage that we consider bad apples.”
But, Parker insisted, Eaton is not among them. He was merely trying to ensure he would get a raise under the new system. In messages to other officers, he encouraged them also to work hard, she said.
Rather than attaboys, Blouin described those messages as further evidence of Eaton’s misconduct. Eaton, he said, was trying to get other officers to join his crusade.
Two officers identified so far are Chris Beesley and Roth Rock. Beesley made his case to Blouin Wednesday. Rock will get his chance next week, said Joe Puleo, who is representing the two for the Fraternal Order of Police.