If you’re a fan of Florida State by now you’ve undoubtedly seen the New York Times piece on how FSU handled the Jameis Winston sexual assault case, as well as the university’s formal response.
As with any discussion of this issue, this column will require a somewhat lengthy preface. I’m not here to defend Jameis Winston; I don’t know what happened that night, nor do I profess to. I have had the benefit of being around Mr. Winston quite a bit. I’m now into my fourth year covering Florida State University, I have interviewed Winston probably a dozen times, I’ve watched him interact with teammates in two different sports, I see him at football practice, baseball practice — but I do not know him. Not really.
My point here is not to serve as a character witness for Winston or to defend the university for which he plays.
In fact, this column really isn’t about Winston or Florida State at all.
My aim is to try to offer some balance to the New York Times’ investigation by broadening their scope a little bit in a couple of key areas.
First and foremost, when you zoom out and look at just what a poorly run outfit the Tallahassee Police Department is as a whole — not just their SVU or their relationship with Florida State — it sheds some light on the fact that a lot of the ineptitude present early on in this investigation may not have been an issue solely because this case dealt with a Florida State football player.
Am I saying they weren’t more lenient because of who Winston was and the potential for this situation to blow up in the media? Absolutely not.
But — as the article cited in its example of another sexual assault also investigated by the TPD — this is an agency that does not appear all that eager to investigate sexual assault.
In his complaint to the police, the father wrote that Officer Pate had suggested that an investigation “would be futile, as ‘this kind of stuff happens all the time here.’” The family also said the police had focused more on the accuser than on the accused.
In that case, no athlete was involved, and the case was not of a high-profile nature. But the TPD was still not eager to launch an investigation.
With that in mind, another possibility exists, which was never even given consideration in the article: that the police force as a whole is not highly motivated to investigate when the evidence is not going to be easy to collect– when everything isn’t in plain view. That could be laziness, or it could be that the TPD is under-staffed. But in the very article in which the assertion is made (if not plainly stated) that the TPD didn’t want to investigate because of who Jameis Winston was, that point is then undermined by the TPD’s unwillingness to follow up in a similar situation not involving an athlete.
The common denominator there is not Florida State football– it’s lazy police-work.
Case in point: Greg Dent. Many FSU fans are quick to point out that Greg Dent — who was a starting WR at the time of his arrest, while Winston was still a back-up during his situation — was charged with sexual assault and dismissed from the team last Summer.
That’s actually not a very good example for Florida State fans though because it doesn’t necessarily illustrate all the things they think it does. Yes, it does show a willingness on the part of the university to discipline a player when a serious charge is leveled against him.
But if you’re going to get upset at the New York Times for glossing over some facts and omitting others, it wouldn’t be prudent to do the same with Dent. Dent more or less admitted guilt in his initial discussion with police. In fact, before he had retained an attorney Dent is rumored (I say “rumored,” because nobody I’ve spoken with about the case is willing to go on record) to have given such an out-right admission of guilt in his initial statement that he was likely going to be prosecuted even had the victim recanted. Tim Jansen, the attorney who represented Winston, even dropped Dent as a client.
So what does that prove?
Well, it shows that when it’s obvious a sexual assault has occurred the TPD will investigate and FSU will act. Beyond that? Not a whole lot.
It does hearken back to something from the New York Times piece though, particularly in regard to Miranda rights and the retention of an attorney.
Mr. Meggs said he was shocked that the police investigator’s first attempt to contact Mr. Winston was by telephone. “He says, ‘I have baseball practice, I’ll get with you later,’” Mr. Meggs said. That call allowed Mr. Winston to hire a lawyer who told him not to talk.
“It’s insane to call a suspect on the phone,” Mr. Meggs said. “First off, you don’t know who you are talking to.” He said he would have gone straight to the baseball field. “If you walked up to Jameis Winston in the middle of baseball practice and said, ‘Come here, son, I need to talk to you,’ he would have said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
Mr. Meggs added: “He’s not in custody, you don’t have to read him his rights.”
There’s a lot going on here. For starters, if you were building a case about a lazy police department, the “only calling the suspect” element certainly adds some fuel to that fire. But beyond that, on one hand you have complaints about the police department warning complainants about the “dangers” of pursuing sexual assault charges and cautioning them against wanting a complete investigation. On the other hand you have a state attorney discussing how to trick a suspect into making a statement without representation.
Outside of the perception that law enforcement in Tallahassee is consistently unscrupulous, this really raises more questions than answers.
One pertinent one is how much differently would the Greg Dent situation have played out if he’d had the presence of mind to retain an attorney before giving a statement to the police? How hard would the TPD have worked had Dent lawyer-ed up from the start? We will never know, but that certainly would shed light on the Winston situation.
It was clear from the other example put forward in the Times’ piece that the TPD’s motivation to investigate, even when it didn’t involve a football player, was lacking too. Would that have been true of Dent’s case as well, had he not spoken to police before seeking counsel?
But expanding beyond just the TPD’s seemingly inept ability to follow through on sexual assault investigations, the article also glosses over other key facts too.
For instance, the NYT alludes to the Travis Johnson sexual assault case, another troubling case that happened a decade before Winston and also featured State Attorney Willie Meggs and the TPD.
A decade before the Winston case, the inspector general found that Florida State had violated its policy when the athletic department failed to inform the campus police of a rape accusation against one of its standout football players. Mr. Ruiz, the former prosecutor who handled the case for the state attorney’s office, recalled that the coach at the time, the revered Bobby Bowden, attempted to convince him that a crime had not occurred. A jury eventually acquitted the player.
An all-female jury acquitted him. And in less than 30 minutes. Even a decade later — in Tallahassee, not nationally — that case still comes up as evidence that Meggs doesn’t cut slack to Florida State football players.
But the article implies that a guilty Johnson was acquitted after Bobby Bowden went to bat for him and a Southern town let him off. That football players get a pass in Tallahassee.
At least in terms of Johnson’s case, that’s factually inaccurate. It’s not even faithful to the account of the State Attorney.
“I hold them to a higher standard,” said Meggs this past December.
And the TPD? It might have also been relevant to mention the department’s mishandling of the Rachel Hoffman situation several years ago, or the DUI arrest that resulted in the severe beating (recorded on a dash-cam) of Christina West and the subsequent internal affairs investigation that exonerated the officers who beat her just last Summer.
It may have been noteworthy that, at the time of the Winston investigation, the TPD was in such a state of disarray that it was being run by an interim chief after the old chief was forced to resign amid scandal.
Did Florida State take advantage of a disorganized police department in their own handling of this issue? That’s possible — it’s no secret around Tallahassee that the TPD has some problems.
But the point of the Times’ article, summed up by Ruiz with a quote in the final paragraph, is low-hanging fruit — it’s the sensational route to take.
“I learned quickly what football meant in the South,” said Mr. Ruiz, who grew up in New York State. “Clearly, it meant a lot. And with respect to this case I learned that keeping players on the field was a priority.”
Sadly that’s true, but it’s not just limited to Tallahassee (it would be naive to pretend it is). You can go down the road to Gainesville or Coral Gables and find the same thing, just in this state alone. You can head to Auburn or Tuscaloosa, Athens or Columbia. Football rules in the South, and you didn’t need the anecdotal evidence from the Winston piece to write that. It was written last summer about Aaron Herandez’ time at UF. It’s been discussed for decades.
In some ways it’s just the North needling the South, ‘Look at those Southerners’ priorities.’ (Even though Steubenville is well North of the Mason-Dixon line).
No, the point of this article should have been that the handling of this case by the TPD needs to start a national dialog about one of the most inept police departments in the United States. Neighborhood Scout (a realty service that uses crime data gathered by the FBI) rates Tallahassee a 5/100 for safety. The city averages 106 crimes per square mile each year, up from the Florida average (70) and way above the national median (39.3). The crime rate in Tallahassee is nearly double that of the national average.
The Jameis Winston case is just a shiny object to pass through our periphery. It gets clicks, it gets attention. Everybody knows the Heisman trophy winner, and the ability to make him polarizing and get a national buzz going was one of the biggest reasons the New York Times sent their top investigative reporter to Tallahassee to essentially rehash all of the information that was made available when the State Attorney’s Office and TPD released their case files back in December.
But in so doing, the Times may have missed the mark on the bigger story. This may be crass, but justice for the alleged victim will likely never come. If it does, it will be in the form of a civil suit. There were no charges filed, FSU isn’t going to dismiss its star player, and there’s no precedent for a school to lose its federal funding over a Title IX case (this won’t be that case, either).
So while the investigation the Times did helps keep the story in the news and helps the complainant make a civil case, it fails to truly probe the depths to which the TPD is broken.
And without a proper spotlight being shined on what’s wrong with that institution, in another decade reporters and the nation alike may find themselves in a similar situation — descending on Tallahassee to find out about another botched sexual assault investigation.
Maybe the third time will be the charm.
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