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Though Likely Profiled and “Harassed,” Flagler Sheriff’s CSI Pazarena Is Reprimanded Over “Conduct Unbecoming” Anyway

| September 4, 2015

csi laura pazarena flagler county sheriff's office

Laura Pazarena, the Flagler County Sheriff’s CSI and evidence supervisor, was found to have done nothing wrong in a pair of interactions with a Vitamin Shop manager in Palm Coast, but was reprimanded anyway. (© FlaglerLive)

As it turns out, Laura Pazarena, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s Crime Scene Investigator and evidence supervisor investigated last month over a pair of interactions at a local vitamin shop, may have been the subject of a profiling episode and felt “harassed” when she decided–as many people facing the same circumstances might–to lodge a complaint with the store manager and its company.

She took advantage of her lunch break to lodge that complaint. But because she was in uniform, and because the store manager felt “intimidated” by that uniform, the sheriff’s office ended up slapping Pazarena with a written reprimand for “conduct unbecoming,” a policy violation that could have led to termination. Pazarena has had a spotless record since the sheriff’s office hired her two years ago to develop the department’s first in-house CSI unit. That saved her from further disciplinary measures.

In the meantime, Pazarena was subjected to a criminal and internal investigation and placed on paid leave for almost a month, pending the completion of those investigations. The criminal investigation was closed swiftly and found no wrongdoing. The internal investigation was completed today and made public by the sheriff’s office this afternoon. Pazarena returned to work last Monday.

The 18-page document, summarizing a dozen interviews with people involved in the case, including Pazarena, and documenting more than a dozen exhibits, paints a perplexing picture–perplexing only with regards to the reprimand, as the investigation makes clear that Pazarena, who was with her boyfriend at the time of the alleged incident, at no time behaved improperly, committed no criminal or illegal acts, and did little more than what an overly inquisitive shopper might do. Some of the evidence the investigation gathered from the employees at the shop in question–the Vitamin Shop off State Road 100 in palm Coast–proved contradictory, groundless or inaccurate. None of the statements Pazarena made were found contradictory or less than truthful.

Most notably, a claim by Cathy Vinhais, the shop employee who termed Pazarena’s attitude intimidating, that Pazarena and her boyfriend fit the description of suspected shoplifters the Palm Coast, Daytona Beach and St. Augustine stores were concerned about was news to Sean Norris, the company’s regional loss prevention manager. Norris told investigators that Pazarena and her boyfriend, Ephryn Thompson, were not suspects in any thefts, nor were they known as suspects in any of the stores that he was responsible for, according to the investigative report.

But there was this: Ephryn Thompson is black. And the profiling of blacks by store employees and “loss prevention” officers is so routine, often blatant and inherently offensive, particularly to the individual being profiled, that there’s a term for it (“shopping while black“) and a cottage industry of scholarly articles and research about it. In June, four ex-employees at CVS, the pharmacy chain, sued the company over the practice, claiming that they were routinely told such things as “follow that black guy.”

At the Vitamin Store, Pazarena told investigators she and her boyfriend got upset the moment they sensed they were being followed, then heard the manager tell another employee, referring to Pazarena’s boyfriend, “watch him, they split up.”

Thompson, according the his interview with investigators, “said he spoke to a female employee at the back of the store then whispered to Laura that they were in the store where they had previously felt that the employees were following him.” Thompson considered the store employees’ attitude toward Pazarena as “rude,” and was made to feel as if he was acting improperly by studying product labels.

A case of “shopping while black” as Pazarena and her African-American companion are targeted, without evidence, as suspected shoplifters.

The interactions at the Vitamin Shop took place on Aug. 1 and Aug. 3. Pazarena and Thompson described being followed on as they shopped the evening of Aug. 1. As they decided to leave, one of the employees snapped a picture of them, then locked the door after they left–again, behavior associated with blatant profiling. Pazarena and Thompson stayed in the parking lot about 10 minutes after that, and saw other customers being let in the store. The store manager would describe the couple staying in the parking lot to a deputy when making a report on the case two days later.

But the reason they stayed in the parking lot, Pazarena and Thompson said, was in case the store had called law enforcement. Pazarena told investigators that she herself called two colleagues at the sheriff’s office to find out if there was anything she could do about the harassing behavior. One of the deputies she called was Jesse Kocorowski, who suggested that Pazarena lodge a complaint at the Vitamin Shop’s corporate office.

Pazarena returned to the store on Aug. 3, this time with Lainie Weibling, who drove the van. Weibling is in training as a CSI. It was their lunch hour. Weibling told investigators that Pazarena was intent on lodging a complaint. Weibling said Pazarena was neither abrasive n or “nasty” to the manager, nor did she demand a copy of the surveillance video (as the Vinhais, manager, claimed to a deputy), though she did think the video was a public record. (It isn’t: it only becomes so if it is made part of an official case.) Weibling, according to the investigation, “said the manager appeared to be aggravated and standoffish and not forthcoming with information.”

Vihais told investigators that “over the last six months to a year they have been getting hit pretty hard by the individuals who are described as a white female with bad acne and a skinny black male,” the report states. “She said the suspects would come into the stores acting suspicious and after they left the high priced items would be missing.” She was referring to several stores–in Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns, though the Vitamin Shop’s regional shop manager would dispute that there had been such an alert.

Vinhais conceded that the “suspects” had not taken anything from the Daytona store nor had she seen them take anything from her store. But when Pazarena returned that second time to ask about the video surveillance, Vinhais told investigators that Pazarena was “very stern in her tone” and was “definitely misrepresenting herself,” though Pazarena identified herself by name–and wrote her name and work number down–and wore her CSI uniform.

Dana Thiess, the manager of the Vitamin Shop in Daytona Beach, said Pazarena and Thompson are regulars at her store but rarely buy more than a drink or a candy car. Thiess had taken the picture of Pazarena and Thompson that was circulating in the Flagler and St. Johns shops. The reason she took the picture, Thiess told investigators, is that the pair would spend a lot of time in the store, buy very little and “the conversation from them was gibberish.” She claimed the couple had been to the St. Augustine store too, which proved inaccurate.

At work after the first visit to the store, Pazarena told several colleagues about the matter and about being upset over the way she’d been treated–and her intention to complain, and did.

Norris, the regional loss prevention manager for the Vitamin Store chain (who was “adamant” about not being recorded, according to his interview with investigators), told investigators “he does not condone what the store managers did by taking the photo of the two and sharing them between stores.”

Nevertheless, the investigation took Vinhais’s word about feeling “intimidated” and claiming that Pazarena had “misrepresented” herself to conclude that Pazarena had violated sheriff’s office policy through “unbecoming conduct.” That section of policy states: “Personnel shall conduct themselves at all times, both on and off duty, in such a manner as to reflect most favorably on the FCSO,” including online. “Conduct unbecoming shall include that which brings the FCSO in disrepute or reflects discredit upon the personnel as a member of the FCSO, or that which impairs the operation or efficiency of the FCSO personnel.”

The investigation leaves unexplained how it leaped from the facts of the case, all but Vinhais’s fractional statements being favorable to Pazarena, to finding Pazarena’s conduct “unbecoming.”

Jim Troiano, the department’s chief spokesman, explained it this way in a brief interview: “She went into that business to complain that she was mistreated by the staff. She should have never done that in uniform. That is a violation of policy. That was something done personally. It should not have been done under the cloak of the sheriff’s office.”

He added: “We want to make sure that our employees don’t do that, if they have personal business like that to conduct. It’s not like you’re going through a drive through and ordering a hamburger.”

Troiano acknowledged that Pazarena had been “mistreated” at the store. “We have a concern as to how an employee was treated,” he said. But the policy is in place to ensure against any abuse of power in any circumstance.

Later this afternoon, the sheriff’s office issued a news release about the concluded investigation. “Although she exercised poor judgement in this case,” the release states, “CSI Pazarena has done an excellent job for the Sheriff’s Office as our first fulltime civilian CSI. She recently received several accolades from our accreditation assessors for a job well done in the areas of crime scene processing and evidence handling.”

Pazarena has 10 days to appeal the decision.

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19 Responses for “Though Likely Profiled and “Harassed,” Flagler Sheriff’s CSI Pazarena Is Reprimanded Over “Conduct Unbecoming” Anyway”

  1. Geezer says:

    If you’re made to feel like a thief at a store – you should be able to
    discuss the matter with a store rep or manager. (regardless of your attire)

    Cops aren’t saints but are not likely to shoplift and lose their job and benefits
    over petty larceny.

    Women who are assertive and work as well as their male counterparts are
    many times called “bitch” behind their backs by the same men.
    Maybe someone at work is looking for a way to cause this lady trouble.
    It looks as if Laura Pazarena is in someone’s crosshairs at FCSO.

    This reprimand stinks worse than a decomposing skunk.

    There’s been a lot of talk about other police personnel misbehaving, such
    as the recent debacle with a rookie deputy drinking with underage kids.
    I think that this allegation regarding Ms. Pazarena pales in comparison –
    along with a reprimand that was proven groundless, no less.
    What gives?

    Shame on FCSO. I wouldn’t want to work there, especially under the current regime.
    There’s a whole lot of unhappy campers there.

    Wonder why?

  2. Just sayingpublic records says:

    in what world is showing up in a law enforcement uniform not implying that you are taking official action in filing a complaint? Does that mean a cop can purchase alcohol in uniform too since it doesn’t matter what they are wearing and the product is legal?

    She exhibited a lack of good judgement showing up in uniform when she could have changed shirts and avoided the whole problem. What else has her bad judgement shown.

    I wouldn’t buy her excuse of thinking its
    She’s been thoroughly educated on public record. Anyone can dieny a video and require a subpoena. u

  3. Just sayingpublic records says:

    I might agree with you if it was only a few people. It’s not, look at the mess she’s created and how everyone feels about it.

  4. liberal says:

    Title of article reads “….Flagler County Sheriff’s CSI and evidence supervisor, was found to have done nothing wrong” …. Then at the end Troiano states “She went into that business to complain that she was mistreated by the staff. She should have never done that in uniform. That is a violation of policy….”

    So, to be clear, Violating the Policy=Nothing Wrong.

  5. Jon Dopp says:

    I just hope that all of those that rushed to judgement in the comments section of FlaglerLive’s last article will be just as vocal with their apologies. Some very harsh things were said about Laura by people who had no idea what they were talking about. The uneducated stone throwing is common in this “public court of opinion.” I hope this case can serve as an example to those that are so quick to judge under the protection of online anonymity: close your mouth if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Things aren’t always as they seem .

    • Geezer says:

      Misery loves company. (unfortunately)

      People who are generally unhappy sometimes console themselves
      by knowing that others are unhappy too. That’s why people LOVE to
      jump on the negativity bandwagon and sling poop in all directions like monkeys.

      I agree: “Things aren’t always as they seem.”
      When you’re doing OK it seems as if those around you are nipping at your heels.

      Anyone who’s conscious knows this.

    • Footballen says:

      It appears you are the one who does not know what you are talking about. It is CLEARLY a policy violation!

  6. rick says:

    I for one am one of those people that was very harsh with my comments in the original article. However this was due to the fact that the sheriff’s office was being less than forthcoming with the information that it could have released because it was apparent in retrospect that the allegations were unfounded.

    I actually feel very bad for Laura because the sheriff’s office handled this so poorly that it has cast a very bad light on her

    The sheriff’s office released the incident report which made these allegations seem relatively credible. It is clear that the sheriff’s office was aware pretty quickly that the allegations were not valid, yet Triano did not alert the media to that. Had he, then the original story, I am sure would have been much more clear in what was going on.

  7. Kendall says:

    There is a GNC around the corner in the Town Center Publix shopping center. Until that manager is no longer at the Vitamin Shoppe, that is where I will spend my money.

  8. Sherry E says:

    Right On Geezer and John Dopp. . . it seems prejudice has reared its ugly head yet again in Flagler county. What a surprise!

    Although, it does seem appropriate that all police officers wear “civilian” clothing when representing themselves only as “civilians”. This should have been treated as no more than a “training” moment. What a tempest in a teapot. . . especially when an officer drinking with underage kids seemed to be a such non-event.

  9. Under the Microscope says:

    It’s funny how Jon Dopp never sticks up for his own boss Sheriff Manfre but has a lot to say to local citizens whose taxes pay his bills when he wants to defend his friends. He also has never once commented or apologized on Flaglerlive for any of the factual write-ups or reprimands of his fellow Deputies. It’s always the “US” against ‘THEM” mindset. Mr.Dopp you didn’t come out of the womb a police officer. You enrolled in a class and you took a course and got a job. A job that is not set in stone you can be laid off and fired just like anyone else who has a boss and gets hired. Please explain your rant about commenters and “online anonymity”. Are you suggesting there is a price to pay if a citizen/Flaglive reader/commenter was to post their legal name in regard to a negative comment regarding one of your friends? Unfortunately for the rest of us that aren’t part your inner-circle as citizens of Flagler County we have to rely on bits and pieces, comments and thoughts on or of a story. At least until the checks and balances all add up. The average citizen knows they can’t do a smidget of what your co-worker did whether we are upset, profiled or not. If the shoe was on the opposite foot the average citizen would have been trespassed maybe arrested for “disorderly conduct” and whatever other created way you decide to write the report. “It’s all in the way you write it up” RIGHT? The point is don’t act is if your above the rest of us and then cry when your held to a higher standard when people question illogical decisions you and your colleagues make. But I’m sure that’s Manfre’s fault too!

    • Jon Dopp says:

      First and foremost, I must point out that I also pay property taxes. Therefore, I pay my own salary. My part (and yours for that matter) adds up to several cents a weeks. Thank you for your contribution. I don’t feel the need to get pulled into an online debate with people over every article posted on Flaglerlive. However, in this particular case, Laura was subjected to very harsh comments and assumptions of guilt. In the end, she made a poor decision and handled the situation improperly, but she was not guilty of criminal activity, which was the assumption that seemed to be made by many commenters on the last article. I do not stick up for Sheriff Manfre, again, because I don’t see a need. He is an elected official and can handle his own PR. As for the comment about online anonymity, no threat was intended. I was simply pointing out that people are real online tough guys with a lot of opinion and tough talk, as long as no one knows who they are and they can’t be held responsible for their harsh opinions and rushes to judgment when it turns out they were wrong.

  10. Muah says:

    I’m glad she was able to keep her job.

  11. BeTheChange says:

    Agreed Kendal. Will also take my business elsewhere. Such a harsh, glaring light should not have been cast on her, but such is public service :( happy it also serves to expose such a disgusting practice. Hold your head high, Ms Pazarena.

  12. Edgar says:

    Are you kidding me? The sheriffs office takes action in order to ensure that one of theirs does not abuse their uniform or authority and somehow this is bad!? Maybe Laura did nothing wrong as far as stealing, and she definitely shouldn’t be fired, but she has a serious lapse in judgment when she walked in there in uniform and tried to file a complaint. The guy above who made the comment about buying alcohol on duty because it’s legal, nailed it 100%.

  13. Geezer says:

    Why travel to a boxing gym to spar when you can do it right here,
    and never break a sweat?

  14. m&m says:

    There’s a war on cops and people in uniform. Arbeys was another one. With the present administrain in the white house who encourages this we have to support these people in unform. They are there when you need them. Spineless Manfre threw her under the bus. Remember this at election time.

    • Arthur Melcaccio says:

      And exactly how did manfre throw her under the bus? Is he the one who told her to go around taking up personal matters in uniform? Or was it the time off with pay, along with a minor punishment which wont cost her a dime or a demotion?

      Manfre had nothing to do with this, though I suspect that if he had done nothing people would have complained about that too.


    It’s obvious she had a reason for a complaint. But not in uniform.

    It’s also obvious the store employees lied during the investigation. Isn’t lying to the police a crime?

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