110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Cop who took items from DeLand Goodwill talks to The Beacon
Officer Miller: 'I'm not ashamed to help homeless people'
By Jen Horton
posted Aug 3, 2012 - 2:59:28pm
UPDATE: The DeLand cop accused of stealing from the back of DeLand's Goodwill store said he's not embarrassed by his actions. Officer Brice Miller said he took items and gave them to someone in need.
"I'm not ashamed to help homeless people," MIller said. "I've helped out a lot of people."
But the DeLand Police Department found seven policy violations in Miller's actions, which were caught on the Goodwill store's surveillance video. The Police Department's two-month investigation ended with a recommendation that Miller be fired. Instead, he retired a few days before he would have been disciplined.
Miller, who worked for DeLand 23 years, noted he had been due to retire three years ago.
He said he understands DeLand Police Chief Bill Ridgway's position, and holds no bad feelings.
"The woman I helped was in her 60s," he said. "She's taking care of four grandchildren and a 90-year-old mother."
Miller said he took clothing for the children, and dishes for the family from the back of the Goodwill.
"They were eating off paper plates," Miller said. "They were using paper cups, and letting them dry to use again, but you know, the paper cups get soggy. Their electric was just turned off, and they're living with no electric."
Miller told a similar story to Sgt. Chris Estes during the investigation of his behavior. He said, years ago, he took a blanket from the back of the DeLand Goodwill store on a freezing cold night and gave it to a homeless person. When he went back to pay for it, he said, a Goodwill employee refused his money, saying "That's what it's here for," to help people in need.
From that, Miller concluded it was OK to take donated items left behind the store, as long as he was giving them to the poor.
The only witness to that exchange, Miller said, is dead.
Miller said he took his normal retirement.
"I could have retired three years ago," he said. "I chose to retire now on my normal retirement."
Miller reiterated that he doesn't feel his actions were wrong.
"I'm not ashamed to help a needy person," he said.
Meanwhile, DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar concluded the Aug. 6 City Commission meeting with a few words about the Miller case.
"Put that incident behind the department and move forward," he advised the police chief and other officers in the audience at City Hall.
"I think our community can have every confidence in our Police Department," the mayor said. "They're professionals, they do their jobs, they work hard. Yes, it's unfortunate that something happened that reflects on the rest of the department. … I just want to let the citizens of our community, and our Police Department, know that we have an excellent Police Department."
REPORTED EARLIER: Brice Miller, the DeLand police officer who retired before he could be disciplined for taking donations left behind the DeLand Goodwill store, will get retirement payments of $2,700 a month, and a deferred-retirement payout of $110,000, according to city officials.
Miller appears in uniform in two surveillance videos shot in May behind the Goodwill at 1560 N. Woodland Blvd., loading items into his patrol car during times he was scheduled to be on duty.
After Goodwill officials notified the DeLand Police Department, Miller was the subject of a two-month internal investigation. He retired Aug. 2, after the investigation concluded with a recommendation that Miller be fired.
"This investigation has been closed with no final discipline awarded," states a memorandum from DeLand Police Chief Bill Ridgway.
Goodwill Industries of Central Florida declined to press charges, although the area behind the store is posted with a notice that items left there are the property of Goodwill.
The DeLand investigation is being forwarded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but that agency will determine only whether Miller should continue to be certified to be a police officer.
Only Goodwill can press criminal charges, according to DeLand officials.
The 21-page Internal Investigation Report from the DeLand Police Department, supplemented by two multi-page memorandums, tells the tale of Miller's attempts to justify taking donations from behind the store. The report also states Miller contacted potential witnesses in the case before they could be interviewed by investigators.
Confronted with the news about the video and resulting investigation May 22, Miller told DeLand Deputy Chief G. Batten and Sgt. Chris C. Estes he had been taking the Goodwill items to help a needy family, and had permission to do so from a Goodwill employee he could not immediately identify.
DeLand police investigators interviewed at least 20 Goodwill managers, employees and former employees, but couldn't find one to corroborate Miller's claim.
Miller said he knew a family in need, and he took clothing and dishes from behind the store to help that family.
The Investigation Report also details Miller's July 7 discovery of an obituary for Beverly Vona, a former employee of Goodwill. Through the obituary, Miller tracked down Vona's son, Mark Carmignani, and got a picture of Vona from the son.
Miller told investigators he believed Vona was the Goodwill employee who had refused payment for a blanket Miller had taken from behind the store. Her action, he told investigators, led him to believe he had permission to take such items for needy people.
Miller told Estes he got the picture for identification purposes, and that he had told Carmignani only that he had known his mother and that she had helped some people, according to the report.
However, the report also states Carmignani later told investigators Miller had told him he was a retired police officer and wanted the photograph for a documentary he was making about people who had influenced his life.
"Based on the facts, it is reasonable to conclude that Officer Miller used deception, preying on the family's sentimental values regarding Mrs. Vona to obtain this photograph," the Investigation Report states.
The report also details Miller's asking a witness in the case to write him a letter thanking him for giving her items taken from the store, and asking a friend's ex-girlfriend, a former Goodwill employee, to vouch for him and say he had permission to take items.
Of the many Goodwill employees interviewed, almost all said the same thing: Goodwill doesn't give away items, and employees can be terminated for doing so.
Under certain circumstances, the City of DeLand retirement committee can terminate an employee's pension benefits. Here is an excerpt from the rules:
"Section 19. Loss of Pension
"If an employee's service is terminated because of dishonest conduct injurious to the City, or if dishonest conduct injurious to the City committed by an employee is determined by the City during the lifetime of the participant but within one year after his service with the City is terminated or within one year after his retirement under the plan, the retirement committee, upon notice from the City Commission of DeLand, may terminate such an employee's interest and benefits under the plan and trust fund.
The dishonest conduct injurious to the City committed by an employee shall be determined and decided by the retirement committee only after a full investigation of such alleged dishonest conduct and an opportunity has been given the employee to appear before the retirement committee to present his case. The decision made by the retirement committee in such cases shall be final and binding on all employees or other persons affected by such decision."
REPORTED EARLIER: A DeLand police officer has resigned before he could be fired, after he was caught on videotape loading donated items into his patrol vehicle behind the DeLand Goodwill store.
After the DeLand Police Department was told about the videotape May 21, Officer Brice Miller was suspended with pay, pending the outcome of an internal investigation. That investigation was concluded July 31, with a recommendation that Miller be fired.
DeLand Police Chief Bill Ridgway had until Aug. 5 to decide on discipline for Miller. On Aug. 1, Miller resigned, "prior to award of final discipline," the Police Department said in a statement to the news media released Aug. 3.
On May 21, the DeLand Police Department was contacted by the loss-prevention manager for Goodwill Industries of Central Florida, who said he had information about a possible theft of Goodwill property by a DeLand police officer.
On May 22, Chief Ridgway met with Tim Schaben of Goodwill Industries, and viewed the surveillance video. According to the Police Department, the film showed Miller behind the DeLand Goodwill at 1560 N. Woodland Blvd., loading into his patrol car items that had been left for donation behind the store. The store was closed at the time, and Miller was off duty.
Schaben told Ridgway he didn't want to press charges, but thought the matter should be investigated internally by the Police Department.
During the course of the internal investigation, Miller confirmed he was the officer shown in the video, but said he had been given permission by a Goodwill employee to take items from behind the store, so long as he was giving them to needy people in the community.
Goodwill discourages leaving donations behind the store when it is closed, but it happens. A sign posted behind the store states "All items in and around this building are the property of Goodwill Industries of Central Florida Incorporated. Anyone caught removing items from this location will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
As the investigation progressed, the Police Department said, the internal-affairs sergeant was unable to confirm Miller's claim of having been given permission to take items from behind the store. At that time, on June 19, Miller's status was converted to an unpaid suspension.
DeLand police said approximately 25 people were interviewed in connection with the case. On July 2, Deputy Chief Gary Batten reviewed the investigation file and concluded "the preponderance of the evidence supported a sustained violation. The recommended discipline was termination," according to the Police Department statement.
At that time, Miller provided new information, the investigation was reopened, and additional leads were followed up. On July 18, Batten reviewed the file again and reached the same conclusion and recommendation for termination.
Miller met with the police chief July 31, to allow Miller a final chance to present information in his defense, which is the final step in the disciplinary process. After that meeting, the chief had five days to decide what would be done.
The morning after his meeting with Ridgway, Miller submitted his letter of resignation. Miller had worked for the DeLand Police Department for 23 years, and he will receive full retirement benefits.
"Because of the serious nature of the accusations, the closed investigation will be forwarded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in its entirety for their review, even though the employee is no longer employed by the police department," DeLand police said.
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