Coconut Creek officer back on the job after 16-month paid leave

For 16 months, Coconut Creek Police officer James Yacobellis was put on paid leave while an investigation took place to see if holding a Taser at a suspect in a bathtub is a violation of the rules.

In his case, it isn’t, the Broward State Attorney’s Office eventually determined.

But while prosecutors investigated, Yacobellis, collected his full salary and benefits, costing taxpayers more than $100,000.

“Our hands were tied,” said Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael J. Mann who, after conducting an internal review, doled out his own punishment: A two-week unpaid suspension for breaking the city’s rules of conduct, which cost Yacobellis about $3,000.

In the months prior to the bathtub incident, Yacobellis had to fend off other complaints.

In the first, Yacobellis was discovered with a female officer inside a city recreational building, instead of being on patrol.

“Your actions demonstrate a blatant disregard, not only of department policy, but also for your responsibility as a law enforcement officer to behave in an ethical manner,” Mann wrote after the May 2011 incident. “Please be advised that any further violations of this nature may result in further progressive disciplinary action, up to and including termination of your employment.”

Just a month later, Yacobellis was accused of falsifying a report, saying he activated his lights and sirens in an attempt to pull a suspicious car over. The teens in the car said they didn’t see the lights and sirens and didn’t realize it was a police officer trying to pull them over. The driver was charged with possession of marijuana and fleeing the scene.

Then in August of the same year, he was called to a home where the residents said their daughter and her boyfriend had stolen jewelry.

Yacobellis took the boyfriend, 19-year-old Blake Robinson, into the bathroom for questioning. Yacobellis turned on the water in the sink, he said, to make sure the girlfriend couldn’t hear what Robinson was saying.

When his partner, then-Sgt.Dominic Coppola, walked into the bathroom, Robinson was standing in the bath tub and Yacobellis had his Taser out, with the laser beam emitting. The Taser was pointed at the ground.

“Blake Robinson was speechless, with his hands down by his side and he appeared to have a blank, scared look on his face,” Coppola wrote in his report.

According to Coppola, Yacobellis then said: “I was telling Mr. Blake here how my report was going to read when he resists arrest and I tase him.”

Robinson was arrested on an outstanding warrant for an unrelated narcotics charge.

He later filed a complaint with the Coconut Creek Police Department about Yacobellis’ questioning techniques.

“I never, ever expected Officer Yacobellis to do anything but his job correctly and professionally, but instead he began to threaten me and my life with his Taser gun pointed at me the entire time,” Robinson wrote.

Although Yacobellis filled out an arrest report, he didn’t include activating his Taser and telling Robinson to stand in the bath tub.

Yacobellis was put on paid leave while the State Attorney’s Office investigated the June and August incidents.

In the end, investigator Stefanie Newman concluded there was “insufficient evidence that Officer Yacobellis engaged in any criminal activity.”

Regarding the June case, in which Yacobellis was accused of falsifying a report, Newman said she looked at the dashboard camera installed in the police vehicle, which is set to activate when the emergency lights go on. The camera didn’t activate, she said, but it would be a challenge to prove there wasn’t a problem with the camera at the time.

“It is unlikely that the state can prove beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt that Officer Yacobellis did not activate his lights and sirens in this case, thereby falsifying his report,” she wrote.

Regarding the August Taser case, Newman looked at whether Yacobellis’ questioning technique should have been included in his report of the incident and whether he could be prosecuted for assault against Robinson.

In her close-out memo, Newman concluded: “While this may not have been the best technique to interrogate a suspect, the intent, by all witness accounts, was certainly to help the victims to recover their missing items.”

Yacobellis also gave a voluntary statement.

“Officer Yacobellis advised that at one point he did take his Taser out because Blake was becoming upset, it was a small bathroom and Blake is 6-feet-2 and he is only 5-feet-7,” Newman wrote. “He testified that he did not ‘electric charge’ the Taser, but Blake started crying, getting antsy, moving his hands, looking like he ‘wanted to go through me,’ so he took out the Taser and said he didn’t want to fight him, and that was at the end when Sgt. Coppola came in.”

This month, Yacobellis, who has been on the force for 12 years, returned to his job. He is back on routine patrol working night shifts and earning $40 an hour. He declined to speak to The Miami Herald for this story.

His attorney, Tony J. Alfero, said Yacobellis was “ready” to be back and took the paid suspension without consulting him.

“He just wanted to get back to work and put this behind him,” said Alfero. “He did nothing wrong.”

But some say Yacobellis’s tactics went overboard and prosecutors should have charged him for the unconventional questioning tactic.

Public Defender Howard Finkelstein wrote a letter to the State Attorney’s office in late February saying he was “terrified” by the State Attorney’s Office’s handling of the case. He also sent a letter to federal authorities to look into the case.

“They refuse to police the police,” Finkelstein told The Miami Herald. “People should be outraged by what the officer did.”

Dismissing the charges “is yet another instance in which your office has turned a blind eye to police misconduct,” Finkelstein wrote in Feb. 27 letter to State Attorney Michael J. Satz.

But Ron Ishoy, spokesman for the Broward State Attorney’s Office, feels otherwise.

“In the last three years, the Broward State Attorney’s Office has had 66 law enforcement officers arrested and charged with a multitude of crimes,” he wrote in an email. “The Broward State Attorney’s Office takes accusations against law enforcement officers very seriously. If there is evidence that a crime has been committed, we have and will continue to prosecute those individuals regardless of who they are.”

In Yacobellis’s case, Ishoy wrote, “the prosecutor personally met with and obtained statements from all of the witnesses in this case, as well as Officer Yacobellis. There was no clear evidence that the officer had committed a crime.”

Chief Mann is hoping that with these three incidents behind him, Yacobellis may have learned his lesson.

“Even good officers make mistakes,’’ said Mann. “Hopefully they learn from them and we move forward as a law enforcement agency.”

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