Robert Finn, the Flagler County sheriff’s deputy fired a year ago for failing to take action regarding a car going down the wrong way on an I-95 ramp moments before the car crashed and its occupant was killed, was ordered reinstated by an independent arbitrator. But Finn will not get back a year of lost wages and benefits.
The arbitrator’s decision reveals confusion within the sheriff’s office regarding the agency’s pursuit policy, though it’s less clear to what role the confusion played in the deputy’s lack of response, as the deputy also failed to take other required actions–or to hear key dispatch updates–that did not involve a pursuit.
Early the morning of April 16, 2018, Wendell Parker, a 32-year-old resident of Miami Gardens, took a wrong turn and ended up driving north on I-95’s southbound lanes near Palm Coast Parkway, from where he wrongfully merged. Moments later he crashed head-on into the car Cynthia Soto was driving south. The 35-year-old Flagler Beach woman was critically injured.
Finn was on duty that morning. Just after 2 a.m.–minutes before the fatal crash–he was dispatched to a medical call in Palm Coast’s C-Section, requiring him to take I-95 to Palm Coast Parkway. As he exited the highway, his lights and sirens on, he had to swerve to avoid a collision with a car heading down the exit ramp, going the wrong way. The car was Parker’s.
Finn could have stopped him. He did not do so. He kept driving to the medical call, where he discovered that the situation had been resolved by the time he got there. In fact, a call had come over the radio at 2:11 a.m. saying the medical issue had been cleared, when Finn was just exiting the highway. Finn would tell investigators he did not hear that call over the sound of his siren.
By then, Parker was dead. Finn got a dispatch call at 2:13 informing him of a two-vehicle collision on I-95, just north of the Parkway exit. Finn responded, getting there at 2:20 a.m., where he assisted in the crash response and, after shutting off his body camera, spoke to a sheriff’s commander, telling him of his earlier encounter with the car going the wrong way down the ramp.
The sheriff’s office reassigned Finn to the 911 dispatch center as it conducted an internal affairs investigation into his performance that morning. The final report found unsatisfactory and incompetent performance, with disciplinary action including a range of measures up to and including termination. He was seemingly fired on July 9, 2018: that was the day the sheriff’s office issued a release to media announcing the firing.
In fact, he wasn’t, quite yet: he was to be paid through July 23. He was fired on July 24, when the undersheriff sent him a memo, ratifying what had been his planned firing.
Finn, a member of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association, the police union, filed a protest, as is his right under the union contract, and the matter went to arbitration before Arbitrator Peter Prosper. Prosper held a quasi-judicial hearing at the Flagler County courthouse last March to examine whether the sheriff’s office had just cause to fire Finn.
On Monday, Prosper issued a 17-page ruling finding that it did not.
Prosper did so despite the sheriff’s office’s contention that Finn “intentionally disregarded his most basic obligation as a law enforcement officer to take appropriate action on the occasion of a crime or other condition requiring police action,” according to the formal position the agency took at the hearing. “Deputy Robert Finn saw a vehicle drive the wrong way onto a highway and did nothing – he made no attempt to apprehend the driver despite clear probable cause, he made no real attempt to stop the vehicle from driving the wrong way on the highway, and he did not even call it out over the radio. Instead, he continued responding as a backup to a medical call.
Finn, according to the arbitration report, had claimed to sheriff’s officials that “when he got to the top of the ramp, he thought he saw the vehicle correct itself and turn right on the highway with the flow of traffic. The [sheriff’s office] argues that Finn’s testimony is not credible and that reality is that he continued to go down the ramp and on to Route 95.” The sheriff’s office’s position was that “Finn could have driven straight across Palm Coast Parkway and re-enter the highway going north to try to pull over the car. The Employer emphasized that Deputy Finn did not take the most basic police action that he could have taken, that is, call it out.”
The union’s position was that procedurally, the sheriff’s office violated Finn’s due process rights by failing to provide him a so-called Loudermill hearing before he was fired. The hearing was held on July 20, or 11 days after the agency announced Finn’s firing in the release to the press. The release had noted that Finn had 10 days “to appeal his disciplinary termination,” but did not go into the details of the required hearing.
To the union, Finn had not been afforded the opportunity to tell his side through such a hearing, a “blatant violation of due process,” according to the union’s position as reflected in the arbitrator’s report. But Prosper rejected that argument.
“Regarding the issue of whether Deputy Finn’s actions or inactions were deserving of termination,” the union’s position goes on, “the Union characterized several factors that it said would show that Deputy Finn was not guilty of the charge.” Among those, that Finn did think Parker’s vehicle made the corrective turn at the end of the ramp, that general agency orders forbid deputies from pursuing anyone by going the wrong way down a divided highway, and that had he asked permission to do so he’d have been told not to.
There is a sharp and potentially consequential conflict in how the rule is being interpreted, according to the arbitrator’s report: “Commander [Chris] Sepe, on the other hand, (the Internal Affairs investigator) testified that protocols forbidding pursuit of a vehicle going the wrong way down a divided highway were only guidelines, not mandatory rules to be followed. The Undersheriff testified for the Employer that the general orders were not guidelines, but were in fact rules that must be obeyed. The Union argues that Deputy Finn cannot be held violative of a rule or regulation that senior personnel cannot agree on its application.” Sepe is now a chief. The undersheriff was Jack Bisland, who has since retired.
Even if Finn had crossed the Parkway to get back onto I-95 and driven the right way to catch up with Parker, I-95 is divided by guardrails “and there was no way that Deputy Finn could have crossed the median as alleged,” the union states, while a Florida Highway Patrol traffic homicide investigator “testified that there was nothing that Deputy Finn could have done to stop the vehicle and prevent the crash.” The union also considered Finn’s firing disproportionate in light of his seven years of service, his lack of disciplinary issues and his many commendations.
Prosper could not fault Finn for not chasing after the car going the wrong way, both because of written regulations and obvious safety issues. “The wisdom of attempting to intercept a vehicle in that manner is dubious,” he wrote. But he didn’t buy Finn’s argument that he had followed the right procedures after seeing the car go the wrong way. “There is no indication by Deputy Finn that he had established with certainty that the driver had turned around,” Prosper found. “Not being sure if he was correct, it was incumbent on Deputy Finn to alert his dispatcher, or attempt to follow the vehicle going the wrong way rather than continuing south on the highway. Deputy Finn erred in not contacting his dispatcher.”
Prosper sought to place some distance between Finn’s actions and his responsibility for the death of Wendell Parker, but by no means an absolving distance: “The accident that occurred was very serious, one in which an innocent person was very seriously injured. The proximate cause of the accident was the fact that an individual was driving his car north on a southbound highway. There is no way to determine if the actions or non-actions by Deputy Finn had any direct influence on the accident. The totality of the information presented does not indicate that conclusion. Nonetheless, Deputy Finn erred several times and disobeyed rules and regulations of Flagler Sheriffs Office for which he remains responsible and accountable.”
The union asked for his reinstatement and that he be reimbursed his year of lost wages and benefit. Prosper agreed with his reinstatement, but “without pay and benefits” for what amounts to exactly a year.
“Although we disagree with the decision of the arbitrator,” the Sheriff’s Mark Strobridge is quoted as saying in a release the agency issued Wednesday, ” the discipline he imposed is still substantial and we will abide by that decision as it is a collective bargaining agreement requirement and we believe in the process of law.” The release states that Finn will return to work as a deputy in the Community Policing Division. “He will receive additional training to aid in his performance. He will be expected to perform his duties up to the standards of an FCSO Deputy Sheriff,” the release states.
Robert Finn v. Flagler Sheriff’s Office (2019)
John dolan esq. says
If you see a kitchen fire (I.e. a car heading onto the interstate the WRONG! way, this is now your TOP priority. The medical issue is now #2 in the Triage protocol.
Disgusting and fowl, sickening and destructive, these are the desicions and the reasons the community has zero trust in the police. This goes beyond the sheriff this is deeper than that. These police unions need to be outlawed as they are an obvious attempt to keep bad cops employed even after the Sheriff and the citizens deem them unworthy to keep the safe. The Community should be outraged!
West side resident says
Once again the sheriffs office policies come under scrutiny. The policies are very clear, they are black-and-white. You are not allowed to pursue a vehicle that is traveling the wrong way on the highway. You are not allowed to pursue a vehicle for a non-violent felony. Yet Sheriff Staly continues to violate his own policies. He encourages vehicle pursuits that do not meet the criteria of his own policies that he has approved. There have been countless times when Sheriff Staly himself has overridden a decision made by a road supervisor and allowed a pursuit to continue that was not warranted. Every time he does this he is rolling the dice. One of these times there will be serious or deadly consequences. At what point do we say enough is enough stop putting the general public at risk for a crime that does not warrant this type of response. All he wants is to be on the highlight reel. I am glad Deputy Finn got his job back, he should have never been fired in the first place.
I am shocked that he has been reinstated. He clearly has poor judgement and we dont need that in our community. Hopefully in the future he will prevent deaths while on call rather than enable one. Please dont let me see him honored for something in our town until he proves he can protect our community.
Name (required) says
Fired? LOL. Wow, Stiff! .. not many people know the background of this “story,” but this is the premier example of the immaturity of these easy route, drama focused, social queen “deputies.” Where was he going again that was so important??!? Oh ya. To throw shade with his fellow unprofessional pals. YOU HAVE AN ACTUAL IMPORTANT JOB TO DO. PERIOD. GROW UP. Shame on you immature smalls, with guns and badges. Yup, said it. Do better. FACT. I have faith this sheriff will clean up this culture of negligence and childishness. End the “green roof inn” and “yard shaming signs” culture. Police our streets like professionals. Cut the B.S.
The Thin Blue Line protects it’s own. Wonder if the FCSO is named as a contributing factor in the wrongful death suit that the deceased victims family has obiviously filed?
The Realist says
Welcome back. Try to do better next time.
This officer needs to go thru rigorous re-training before let him out in our community and only in a try out basis reinstated. We can’t have officers like one told me several years ago about a real bad neighbor, “that if he was me will sell and move away” When I just bought the house! Or recently a traffic units supervisor telling a resident regarding the mayhem traffic on her “residential street” -this is why I live in the outside of town.
I see re-training needed.
By the way the mentioned neighbor above is long gone was forced to sell or loose the house to liens some from code enforcement …
Maybe take down the sign the says 95 south that misleads you to think that is how you get on 95 south, yet your going the wrong way down a one way? Just sayin.
Marie Perez says
Well does this mean he should help with the finances of the young mother that was left with physical damage? This is Bullsnot! Her life and her childs life are forever changed because of this incident.. Where is her Justice??
Unbelievable!! This union is worst then the Mafia!!!
Trump needs to break that union!!!
Given all the people that end up being killed are injured by someone heading the wrong way onto the interstate, why wouldn’t each ramp have spikes installed that flatten you tires if you’re going the wrong way? Sure there’s a cost and maybe some flattened tires would be a bummer, but the countless lives saved and injuries avoided would be worth it.
Concerned Citizen says
As a retired Public Safety professional and a current volunteer this is inexcusable.
That Deputy failed to do his job. In doing so he cost a life and violated his oath of office. He should have been charged with several offenses. The very least Malfeasance Of Office. And now he gets his job back?
I have said it before and will say again. This Sheriff’s Office has serious issues. And they have done nothing to correct them. Are they going to hire the drunk Deputy back? Or the CCTV operator that got fired? I mean fair is fair right?
How the hell do they maintain Accreditation?
@ Name (Required)
You have faith that our Sheriff will clean up the childishness? LOL. He’s part responsible for the culture we see in the sheriffs office today. We have a pet name for the jail, and anyone who winds up in it is labeled a dirtbag or some other derogatory name? He’s a showboater. Some of our residents like it and see no issue though I believe some others see it different. We look for our law enforcement to be above these things and want to see them act in a professional manner and to be Unbiased in their judgement (when they are in uniform, they are representatives of our community) but when the leader, even in all his years on the job, can’t grasp it and realize how unprofessional it is and looks to the public at large to resort to name calling instead of just sticking with the facts, your faith that it will be cleaned up will most likely be in a new Sheriff when he or she comes along.
The driver that went the wrong way was responsible for the fatal accident. NOT THE DEPUTY, what was he going to do, chase the car the wrong way on 95. Why does there always need to be a scapegoat .
West side resident says
At some point you the citizens of Flagler County need to wake up and stop looking for the escape goat in everything. The Sheriff is responsible for the actions or in-actions of the deputies. A good leader leads from the top down. He follows the rules and sets the standard for the agency. This COWBOY does none of that. He breaks and bends his rules as he feels and constantly undermines his supervisors. It is time that all of the ridiculous actions of Sheriff Staly be known by the public. It is only going to get worse as we are quickly approaching election time. Enough is enough, we want a professional Sheriff that leads by example. It is not Rick Staly
Why is everyone glossing over the fact that he was out of his area and took so long to engage any emergency mechanisms is because while we were paying him he was hanging out AT HOME? Am I missing something? Is there some valid reason his being at home was acceptable?
Remember a few years back when a deputy was directly responsible for a person’s death on SR 100 when he crashed into the back of a van? I do. Manfre and Staly did not fire that deputy and instead saved his job by placing him at the inmate facility making many promises to him at the time that he could eventually return to patrol.
Remember when deputies let a young drunk driver go and a short time later she got back behind the wheel and crashed into and killed another driver? I do.
In both instances the deputies involved kept their jobs.
Now here we have a deputy who was not directly responsible at all for the death of this wrong way driver with his only punishable offense being not calling it in. He was made by the agency he serves to look as though had sole responsibility for the driver going the wrong way and the crash and death that followed. His employment with the agency was terminated leaving this deputy to spend a year without pay fighting to get his job back. What’s good for one (or more) is good for all. You can’t change the rules of the game just because it’s a different player.
Sounds to me like the union that serves those employed by the sheriffs office could use stronger attorneys. Let this be a lesson and a wake up call to those who think you’re paying dues for protection. It’s weak at best and the attorney should have exampled the above incidents since each case involved a death. Two of which are directly related to decisions made by deputies which was not the case in the wrong way driver incident.
Concerned Citizen says
You are spot on sir. Our Sheriff is nothing but a political show boater. We only know him so well because he’s in the media. And most of the time it’s not very flattering.
No one is making a scapegoat. The Deputy chose to not pursue and intercept a wrong way vehicle. He had no busniess being on a med call out of his area. Especially when other units were on scene. He had the means to potentially stop the errant vehicle and protect the public. He failed to do so and it cost a life.
Public Safety and other professions that require an oath to enter are held to higher standards. And this County sends some mixed signals. They will rehire a Deputy that failed to do his job but convict someone of tape recording.
In the regular work force when we fail to do our job we usually get fired. It should doubly be so in Public Safety. Incompetence has no busniess there.
X Employee says
I can tell you without a doubt that most deputies do not follow policy. If you have them a test the would fail. This has been going on for a long time. It did not just start with the current Sheriff. We need a Sheriff who will force these deputies to know procedure and act accordingly. Good luck with that! As far as Accreditation goes, I am pretty sure since they have no building to call home, it is null and void.
Give this guy a break, its easy for all of you to TYPE your negative comments about this story without knowing the whole story. This Deputy was responding to a possible overdose (possible death), and in a split second decision decided to stay on that call rather than turn around and follow the driver. How was he to know his decision would have the outcome it did. He served his punishment, a whole year away from the job with no pay. he deserves a chance. there are employees working for the sheriffs office that have done worse and been slapped on the wrist. So before all you keyboard commandos decide to drag this kid through the mud, know the whole story first.