No PAL of Mine
January 30, 2017 (Fault Lines) – While all eyes are on Trump’s immigration disaster, smaller, quieter local stories are going uncovered. There’s an instance of police misconduct in Jacksonville, Florida that deserves our attention, not because it’s so very terrible in and of itself, but because it’s pedestrian and pointless enough to be instructive.
Until last week, Robert Gober III was a sergeant with the St. Johns Sheriff’s Office. He was a 25-year veteran of the department and the nine-year executive director of the county Police Athletic League (PAL,) a nonprofit dedicated to helping at-risk youth keep on the straight and narrow and fostering good relations between the sheriff’s office and the community.
There are many similar programs across the United States, or at least there used to be. Budget pressure has forced a number of police departments, including some in fairly large cities like Baltimore, to shut theirs down. St. Johns County, however, bucks the trend in that its PAL has actually been growing: according to a sponsorship flyer Gober released at the beginning of the year, the program accommodated 1,414 kids in 2016, up from just 295 in 2008. Nationwide, they overwhelmingly cater to at-risk, chiefly minority youth, and the recruitment literature makes it clear that St. Johns County is no exception.
What’s more, judging from its website, St Johns County’s really is one of those PALs that deserve to be called “Athletic.” Its program is heavily sports-oriented and designed to give kids up to the age of 14 something healthy, fun and constructive to do during afterschool hours. In other words, it’s something so unambiguously well-intended and positive that even this jaded crimlaw writer can’t complain about it.
While there aren’t any particularly rigorous studies on how effective PALs in general are at holding down crime and improving academic performance, there are a number of surveys of individual PALs. Some of the signs are encouraging: a 2004 Johns Hopkins study of Baltimore’s program shows that the kids, 91% of whom were black, consistently reported high levels of satisfaction with their PAL, said they felt close to their police mentors, did well at school and were unlikely to miss class. (More’s the pity that it was closed down.)
St. Johns County’s version of a PAL is also light on the taxpayer purse. While it’s run and staffed by deputies, as a 501(c)(3) charity, it depends on voluntary contributions from the public. Like any small nonprofit, it raises money in a number of benign ways: there are funding drives, sponsorship deals with local businesses, a partnership with United Way.
So what did Sgt. Gober do as the head of such a worthy initiative? Why, steal from it, of course.
Sergeant Robert Gober, a 24-year veteran of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and Executive Director of the Police Athletic League for the past 9 years, is accused of embezzling funds intended to help divert kids from crime.
An internal tip in September led to an investigation into how Police Athletic League funds were being spent.
That report […] shows some 30 thousand dollars of questionable expenditures by Gober including expensive dinners, alcoholic beverages, entertainment and travel.
What did he spend the loot on? Glad you asked. Here are a few of his known purchases:
- $252 for tickets to see the Washington Wizards
- $180 for “a dinner at Longhorn steakhouse, with alcohol”
- $200 for a meal at the Olive Garden (seriously, Gober?)
- $157 for a dinner at Bahama Breeze
- $191 for a pair of sunglasses
Gober also used PAL money to pay for hotel rooms, gift cards and bike and car repairs, play fantasy football and acquire what Action News Jax cryptically describes as “custom-made calendars.”
Gober, who has been on paid administrative leave for months, resigned on January 25 after he met with Sheriff David Shoar, who informed him that the 7th Circuit State Attorney’s office is considering prosecuting him for organizing a scheme to defraud. In addition to the prospect of a felony charge, Gober is going to have to deal with the loss of his pension and generous salary: according to floridaopengov.org, he made nearly $70,000 in 2011, the last year on record. He’ll likely never be able to work as a lawman again, though in Florida, all things are possible.
What a terrible, petty way to end a career! And there will be consequences beyond Gober’s own implosion, as the stories of embezzlement may well deter people from donating to the nonprofit he ran. The sheriff’s office appears to be well aware of this. Sheriff Shoar has already underlined his strong support of the PAL, and spokesman Chuck Mulligan has come up with a list of accountability tweaks, including hiring a new officer purely for oversight purposes.
Boring, you say, accustomed as you are to reports of epic constitutional abuse out of America’s big cities? Trivial doings in a trivial place? Consider this. Here at Fault Lines, we’ve interviewed our share of police chiefs and experts. They typically come out in favor of what’s known as “community policing,” the basic goal of which is to encourage people to volunteer their help to the cops. This is done by building trust, responding to people’s concerns and persuading them that assisting the police won’t be detrimental to their own interests.
Charities are a great way of achieving that goal. There’s no reason why a cooperative effort at charity work shouldn’t work in principle: Americans in their private capacities are some of the world’s most generous givers, and America’s a high-trust society with low perceived levels of corruption. But especially where the police are concerned, trust is also fragile and hard to maintain. Even the best-intentioned police commanders with decades of experience under their belt can undermine a lifetime of hard-earned goodwill with a single rash act.
All the signs suggest that St. Johns County PAL works. It was well-run, expanding its services and, if the surveys out of other PALs are at all representative, promoting good relations between at-risk kids and cops. Now, thanks to the apparent greed of a deputy who was already earning a good salary, all that positivity is at risk of going down the drain.
We tend to focus on systemic failings when we look at police misconduct. But at times, we may do so to our detriment. Gober’s story is an important reminder that even individual bad apples can put years of progress at risk.