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Thursday, Aug. 11, 2005 12:30 am

Just desserts

Cop who pleaded guilty to DUI now patrols for drunk drivers

Derek Wheeler, a Springfield police officer who pleaded guilty to driving drunk in October 2003, now earns time and a half pay working overtime patrolling for other drunk drivers, according to a sources in legal and law enforcement professions.

The irony apparently isn’t lost on Chief Don Kliment, who was inspired by Wheeler’s case to formally notify the Policemen’s Benevolent and Protective Agency Unit 5 that discipline under his administration may differ from standards set by previous chiefs.

Wheeler, whose October 2003 arrest capped an 11-hour binge that started at a 6 p.m. police union meeting and continued at local bars through 3 a.m., was stopped around 5 a.m. when another officer noticed Wheeler’s truck weaving from lane to lane. Inside were not only a supply of beer from Wheeler’s home fridge, but also a woman with a history of prostitution-related arrests, whom Wheeler had just picked up in an area known for prostitution.

He pleaded guilty to DUI and was fired by Kliment, but appealed his dismissal. In February, Wheeler was reinstated by an arbitrator who decided that Wheeler’s punishment had to match similar offenses.

The arbitrator cited the case of SPD Officer Don Loftus, whose blood alcohol tested 0.255 after he left a bar driving the wrong way down a one-way street and collided with another motorist in May 2002. Then-chief John Harris gave Loftus three days off without pay. The arbitrator ruled that Wheeler’s punishment should be the same and that SPD had to rehire Wheeler and reimburse his missed pay.

The only way Wheeler could have been fired, according to the arbitrator, was if Kliment had previously notified the police union that “some specified conduct will no longer be tolerated, or will be treated more seriously in the future than it has been in the past.”

The ruling meant SPD had to give Wheeler all the rights afforded any other officer, including the opportunity to work DUI “hire-back” patrol. But Kliment took steps to ensure this same situation can’t reoccur.

Sgt. Bob Markovic, union president, confirmed that Kliment sent the PBPA a letter notifying members that he would “not be bound by past discipline” standards set by former chief Harris.

Both Kliment and Markovic declined to comment further.

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