Gerry Wengert doesn’t have the best track record.
In 2010, the Broward Sheriff’s deputy allegedly fractured a man’s face after he pulled him over for playing his radio too loudly.
In 2012, he was arrested after being accused of punching a teenager who had annoyed his girlfriend by grabbing a parking spot. The cop then unleashed his police dog on the teenager, who had to be taken to the hospital for bite-wound treatment. Wengert was charged with battery, misconduct, and falsifying a police report, since he'd initially lied about what had happened.
In 2014, two street artists caught spray painting train cars accused him of pointing an assault rifle at them. Again, he unleashed his police dog, causing both men to be hospitalized for several days and suffer permanent nerve damage.
(Police internal affairs cleared him in all three cases — but he is being sued in two of them.)
And last July, BSO began investigating him after he allegedly punched a suspect so hard that the man's face was barely recognizable afterward.
Because of that most recent incident, Wengert, whose name you may also recognize because he once appeared in the short-lived TLC reality show Unleashed: K-9 Broward County, is currently the subject of an internal BSO investigation.
So, for the past 440 days, Wengert has been on paid leave. Since his annual salary is $72,735.22 a year, he’s cost taxpayers $87,680.81 so far for not showing up to work.
Wengert is one of nine BSO deputies who are currently on paid leave while being investigated. The list also includes Peter Peraza, who fatally shot Jermaine McBean in 2013 and is currently being sued by McBean’s family. He has now been on paid leave for 257 days, earning a total of $51,213.57 in that time.
By New Times’ calculations, suspended deputies are costing $1,720.47 per day. The nine deputies who are currently suspended have earned $260,816.34 so far.
Of course, police officers have the right to due process like everyone else and are considered innocent until proven guilty. But Philip Sweeting, a law enforcement consultant and former Boca Raton deputy police chief, argues placing them on paid leave during an investigation is a waste of taxpayer’s money.
“You should put individuals who are being investigated on leave with no pay, because if they’re found innocent, you can pay them back,” he says. “They can recover that money down the road. If you put them on paid leave and they’re found guilty, well, you just paid their salary.”
Obviously, suspending officers without pay is not something to take lightly since it can leave them in a tough spot financially, unable to pay the mortgage and without health insurance for their family.
But in some cases — such as when there’s video evidence — it’s fairly clear-cut. “If you’ve got a video that shows [an officer] beat the snot out of some guy, what’s the point of giving him six months pay?” Sweeting asks rhetorically.
In at least one instance, that’s exactly what the BSO is doing. Deputy Kristen Connelly, who faces criminal charges for beating up an inmate who requested a tampon, has been on paid leave for 164 days, which translates to $30,076.99 at her present salary.
Video captured by one of the jail’s security cameras shows Connelly pull the inmate out of her chair and throw her around the room before forcing her into a changing room where she couldn’t be seen on camera.
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Connelly was cleared by police internal affairs but has been criminally charged by state prosecutors with battery on an inmate.
The BSO has not yet responded to a request for clarification about how it decides whether to place a suspended officer on paid or unpaid leave. But, Sweeting says, pressure from police unions is often a factor. And, he points out, it’s not like the money to pay suspended officers’ salaries is coming directly out of the sheriff’s pocket.
The costs add up. Internal investigations frequently take a year or more, since police departments generally wait to see if officers will face criminal charges. In the meantime, officers mainly get paid for doing nothing at all.
“You’re giving them a free vacation at the taxpayer’s expense,” Sweeting says.