North Port police sue to stop document release

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NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Efforts to get more details about the internal investigation into a party attended by North Port police officers that resulted in one cop being charged with a crime and another taking his own life has made its way into the court system. Earlier today a judge heard arguments on whether to dismiss the suit filed by the City of North Port in an effort to prevent the release of the documents.

Since March multiple public information requests have been filed with the North Port Police Department to get more details about the party. Many of those requests have been denied, but a ruling by a local judge could change all that.

"It’s been inconsistent from day one,” says paralegal Michael Barfield, the man at the center of the public records request case involving the North Port Police Department. “Sometimes they withhold information, other times they release it, now they're back to withholding it again."

The story began back on March 2. Several members of the North Port Police Department were at a party where two officers allegedly handcuffed a woman and sexually assaulted her. Some details about the incident were released when officers Melanie Turner and Ricky Urbina (now deceased) were officially charged with the crime. But Barfield says that since the initial arrest there has been more fallout in the department.

"Other [officers] have been placed on leave and we don’t know who they are, so there are officers getting paid by citizens and we don’t even know who they are or any of the circumstances," Barfield says.

The details of the incident are now part of an internal investigation. When Barfield requested those documents, the city filed a lawsuit preventing their release -- a move North Port’s police chief says was necessary.

“If I was to release that information, I could be charged with a misdemeanor,” said Chief Kevin Vespia. “And by all means, as a police chief, I do not want to be charged with a misdemeanor."

The statute in question is known as the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, and it's meant to protect an officer during an internal investigation. Vespia says part of that protection is withholding the officer's name with the sole goal of ensuring due process.

"We are a transparent city, and I think we've proven that based on the things we've placed on our website,” Vespia says. “By no means do I want to hide anything. In fact, if you can recall, I put the press release out to let you know this is all occurring, but there is only limited information I can provide"

Barfield disagrees. "We're going to have officers who are alleged to have engaged in misbehavior, and I think the public is entitled to know who was there," he says.