Detective Worley Suspended With Pay Pending Internal Investigation
Last updated 6/10/2020 at 8:53am
Lake Wales Police Detective Travis Worley was suspended with pay Friday June 5 pending the conclusion of an active internal investigation, which Deputy Chief Troy Schulze called "the best decision for everyone involved."
Worley was the prime target of a protest May 31 by the Winter Haven-based civil rights group the Poor and Minority Justice Association, which called for his termination for allegedly using racial slurs, excessive force, stealing from suspects, planting drugs and other offenses. About 125 protesters gathered at the Lake Wales Police Department, many holding up signs calling for Worley's ouster, and the PMJA said they would hold future protests every two weeks until the police department took action against the officer.
Local attorney Sara Jones, who attended the protest and has called for a full investigation of Worley, said she was "encouraged by LWPD's decision to put Detective Worley on administrative leave pending the outcome the investigation into his behavior. We can only hope that the investigation will be fair and the outcome just.
"We also hope that this is the beginning of a new era in Lake Wales where the citizens can come together with law enforcement to share the responsibility of keeping our city safe. Only time will tell, but this is an important first step," said Jones, who also is president of the Lincoln Community Development Corporation, a pro-business group that is working to revitalize the city's predominantly black northwest section.
Police Chief Chris Velasquez told city commissioners at their June 3 budget workshop that the department had thoroughly investigated complaints raised at the Jan. 30 workshop, which was called to discuss Jones' requests for more police training, community policing and body cameras. At that meeting several people in the audience described alleged bad treatment by Lake Wales police officers, and a private investigator read off a long list of allegations.
"I did make sure our folks investigated each and every one of the comments, concerns, allegations and insinuations that were made at our workshop – every single one of them," Velasquez said. "Out of these 14 complaints, not a single one could we substantiate, not a single one of them. They were either unfounded, incorrect, inadequate or totally fabricated. A couple are still in court."
But Velasquez had previously told LakeWalesNews.net that he didn't have enough information to investigate the anonymous complaints. And Jill Tuman with Prison Break Investigations confirmed Friday, June 5 that the police chief never contacted her to discuss the complaints she read off at the workshop on behalf of people she said were afraid to come forward because they feared retribution or retaliation from police.
"I think people are being targeted because of their race, because of them being in a certain part of town," said Tuman, who worked four years as a police officer before becoming a private investigator. "Why am I hearing the same stories over and over and over again about the same officer? Why would I hear the same story of harassment and people being hurt when in custody and drugs not being recovered when that was the reason for the stop? It's the same song and dance."
Worley got on Tuman's radar when one of her clients said Worley "beat him up," and then other people started contacting her to share their own experiences.
"I have no horse in this race. I don't live in Lake Wales. I have nothing to gain from lying. I am a neutral party in all of this except I believe my client is innocent," Tuman said. "My client is not guilty. Worley did beat him up. We're going to go to all lengths to make sure my client's case is dismissed or he is found not guilty."
Attorney Jones said she would provide additional proof of misconduct once the criminal case was resolved. She was upset at the budget workshop by what she considered a personal attack by Velasquez. The chief read something Jones had reposted on her personal Facebook page offering advice for anyone caught in a situation where tear gas was used and he questioned whether some people should be considered community leaders. After the meeting she posted about the chief implying she was not a community leader, and her Facebook post drew more than 150 comments from people encouraging her and praising her leadership and commitment to the community.
Jones said the passionate discussion about the need for body cameras demonstrates that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, but "I have emphasized what we need first and foremost is implicit bias training. Police need to be trained how to deal with communities of color and how to really understand the communities they police. That is their problem."
After hearing of Worley's suspension, Jones said "I'll reserve any skepticism and say this: If LWPD, or anyone else, is willing to work cooperatively with the citizens to address the betterment of our city and to make positive change, I am willing to participate in that hard work. The goal of our public outcry has not been to harm the reputation of LWPD, but rather to shine light on injustice. If our police department is interested in justice work, we are on the same team, and we welcome the opportunity to pursue that work together."
The June 3 budget workshop, which became heated as commissioners debated the need for police body worn cameras, came on Interim City Manager James Slaton's first full day in the position. Aware of growing concerns for the last several months, Slaton told commissioners he has been having conversations with Velasquez for some time and is committed to bringing people together and resolving the issue.
"Real true honest relationships are the foundation of a community and making a community more resilient," Slaton said. "We're going to figure it out."