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.
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.