Mimesis Law
20 October 2017

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.

7 Comments on this post.

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  • Rick
    30 January 2017 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    What’s your point? That there are dishonest people in the world and some of them are cops? Why would police be any more honest than any other group? Doctors steal drugs, bankers embezzle from their banks, store clerks steal shoes, lawyers steal from their clients, the heads of charities steal, our Ex President and his bride have stolen hundreds of millions through their foundations, it goes on everywhere all the time. It’s a shame but I doubt it will hurt donations any.

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      30 January 2017 at 4:31 pm - Reply

      I can’t help but think that if more people shared your relaxed outlook, the electoral season would’ve been a lot less annoying.

      • Rick
        31 January 2017 at 6:34 am - Reply

        No, I don’t have a relaxed attitude st all. I hope this petty crook loses his pension and spends time looking through bars the other way. I just don’t understand why you thought this was worthy of an article. I get the anti-police slant of this site but is this the best you could do? I’m not even a cop fan but the efforts you all go to to smear cops gets tiring.

        • David Meyer Lindenberg
          31 January 2017 at 7:22 am - Reply

          Heh. I write something critical of one cop and commenters call me a cop-smearing police hater. I write something mildly supportive of another and I’m an authoritarian cop lover.

          It’s almost like I go to some effort to judge cases on the merits instead of playing the partisanship game. As for why I thought Gober was worthy of an article, I did say so, didn’t I? There’s an object lesson here for police reformers.

          We tend to scoff at the notion that “bad apples” are all that ail police departments, and when the mean-ass editor and I interview a cop, we usually make a point of asking about it. We also have a tendency to want big, dramatic change, something I criticized in another post you may feel is unworthy of your time because it’s not about a big, dramatic case of abuse. But individual cops can do a lot of damage, even in police departments that are otherwise clean and take quick steps to deal with corruption. The big picture isn’t all that’s important, and your comments suggest you have yet to grasp that point.

  • Eva
    30 January 2017 at 9:35 pm - Reply

    So if you pronounce his last name as “Goober” I believe it would be an unfortunate but an apropos coincidence considering the circumstances….

  • WJM
    31 January 2017 at 9:07 am - Reply

    I mean, you write a lot of awfully positive things about the program, but this is a pretty quick rush to judgment about the executive director of the program for almost a decade who apparently grew it from 50 kids to over a thousand.

    It would be one thing if he was spending the money on hookers and blow, but clicking on the links and the links-within-links, these expenses could easily be pretty innocent. Treating an escort to a $200 meal at Olive Garden would be pretty damning, but I’d be a lot less inclined to give a shit if it were a meal for volunteers or at-risk kids. There’s not much there to suggest that the facts are otherwise, and what context is provided at least somewhat supports that:
    “Investigators found several odd charges made to the PAL account, including hotel rooms for PAL trips, gift cards and dinners where alcohol was served to a select number of volunteers, the sheriff’s office says.”

    And sure, some money was spent on clothes and sunglasses, but he claims that was to replace personal items damaged during program activities. Maybe he’s a scumbag, maybe not, maybe folks are just upset that he spent money on doing nice things for poor black kids without authorization. The context provided in the linked articles doesn’t really foreclose either possibility. Were the sports tickets, gift cards, and “custom-made calendars” bought for personal use or for at-risk kids in the program? We make an assumption either way. What does appear rather clear is that it’s a good program and this guy ran it for years and grew it into something. It’s disconcerting that we assume the worst.

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      31 January 2017 at 11:30 am - Reply

      I admire your willingness to fact-check me. We need more of that. But I think you missed the sheriff’s statement, available under “underlined his strong support of the PAL”:

      https://www.facebook.com/StJohnsSheriffOffice/posts/1416094245080980

      What’s more, First Coast News says it got its hands on the report from the internal investigation. They say it not only corroborates the information from the sheriff’s office, but suggests tens of thousands more may have been embezzled.