A former Lake Wales police officer was sentenced to two years in state prison Thursday on charges that he used police equipment to aid a member of a drug operation, including exposing the identity of an undercover sheriff's deputy.
Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen said it pained him to sentence Keenan Colson but said Colson should be held to a higher standard as a law enforcement officer.
"If I can't believe in law enforcement officers the whole system falls apart," Jacobsen said at the conclusion of a nearly three-hour hearing Thursday. He released Colson on the condition that he turn himself in by Dec. 30.
Colson, 51, was arrested last year as part of an eight-month, multi-agency investigation that included using wire taps to uncover an alleged drug operation in Haines City. The investigation revealed marijuana grow locations, and detectives seized about 20 pounds of marijuana and more than 160 marijuana plants, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.
Colson pleaded no contest to several charges in September.
Using his resources as a police officer, Colson supplied information and advice to Clayton Hoerler, 26, a personal friend and one of the drug ring's leaders. At Hoerler's request, Colson would run license tag numbers and check individuals for outstanding warrants. In one case, Colson ran a tag that belonged to an undercover sheriff's deputy and informed Hoerler.
Investigators played audio of a phone call in which Colson told Hoerler that he knew the deputy personally and had once worked with his father at the Bartow Police Department. During questioning on Thursday, Colson said he also was close to the young deputy's family and said the two had formerly worked together at the Lake Wales Police Department.
Colson said he didn't realize the deputy was working undercover at the time his name was disclosed to Hoerler. When asked whether he knew he was endangering the deputy, Colson said he thought Hoerler to be nonviolent.
Colson said he befriended Hoerler about seven years ago. They shared an enthusiasm for motorcycles, and Hoerler would sometimes accompany Colson and other officers on ride-alongs.
Colson said he gradually learned that Hoerler sold marijuana and began assisting him with information, but said he never received favors or compensation in return.
"Big lapse in judgment. That's something I should have never done," Colson said Thursday. "In my mind Clayton was a person and not a drug dealer, but that's no excuse."
Earlier this year Hoerler was sentenced to 18 months in state prison as part of a plea agreement. He pleaded guilty Feb. 18 to conspiracy to engage in racketeering.
Several friends and family members spoke in support of Colson on Thursday, describing the Bartow native as a role model in the city's black community and an exemplary officer who rose to the rank of lieutenant at BPD. He had worked for the department from 1981 until his termination in 1997 after an internal affairs investigation regarding an arson case involving his girlfriend. He earned about $45,000 yearly as a Lake Wales officer until resigning after his arrest Aug. 13, 2008.
Assistant State Attorney Brad Copley said Thursday that Colson betrayed the community that looked up to him by cooperating with a drug dealer like Hoerler.
In delivering the sentence, Jacobsen said he was disturbed that Colson would reveal the identity of a fellow law enforcement officer and friend, as well as help a drug dealer, on an ongoing basis.
"To say this was a lapse in judgment is an understatement," Jacobsen said.