Jacksonville, FL – A Jacksonville police officer who drove a police vehicle to work with a blood-alcohol level that was four times the legal limit just got his job back and won’t be criminally charged.
Jacksonville Police Officer Nicholas Gifford reported for duty at the city’s gun range on Oct. 13, 2021, just hours after he had consumed an entire bottle of vodka, WJXX reported.
Fellow officers could tell he was intoxicated, so they removed his gun belt and took him down to headquarters for a breathalyzer test.
“I’m drunk,” he admitted, according to the Internal Affairs report.
More than three hours later, Officer Gifford blew a .316, about four times the legal limit of .08, the Florida Times-Union reported.
That was the first “mistake” that was made in the investigative process, according to Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Undersheriff Pat Ivey.
Undersheriff Ivey said that removing Officer Gifford from the scene “complicated” the investigation, WJXX reported.
When he was interviewed by Internal Affairs investigators, Officer Gifford admitted he had a serious drinking problem and said he had showed up for work drunk “probably five, 10 times” in the past.
Undersheriff Ivey said the problem was that Officer Gifford was required to “blow” as part of Internal Affairs’ administrative investigation into the incident.
But requiring him to do under those circumstances meant that the test results could not be used against the officer in a criminal investigation, WJXX reported.
Undersheriff Ivey said that the initial mistakes made were the reason the agency decided to handle the matter administratively, and that was why the sheriff fired Officer Gifford.
But his termination didn’t last long, according to WJXX.
The officer appealed his termination to the Civil Service Board and that entity voted 4-to-2 that firing was too severe of a punishment and said that Officer Gifford should be reinstated by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO).
The board recommended that Officer Gifford be given a 90-day suspension and rejoin the police force in April, WJXX reported.
He will also have to take three random breathalyzer tests per work cycle for a year as part of the terms of his reinstatement.
“The board prevented the agency from upholding its zero-tolerance policy for on-duty officers being under the influence of alcohol,” JSO Director Larry Schmitt, who is in charge of the department’s personnel and professional standards, told the Florida Times-Union.
Schmitt said that Officer Gifford’s case “highlights the challenges law enforcement agencies face when established industry standards of policy can be upended by a small group of individuals who are not trained in those standards.”
The Civil Service Board consists of volunteer members tasked with reviewing discipline decisions that have been challenged by city employees.
Schmitt told the Florida Times-Union that the board’s vote to reinstate Officer Gifford “does not prioritize the obligation and commitment that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has to the public safety of this city.”
The chairman of the Civil Service Board was one of the votes against reinstating Officer Gifford.
“Are we going to put this officer back in a police car with a gun?” Jacksonville Civil Service Board Chair James Register asked. “I’m just — I’m not comfortable leaving this thing and having Officer Gifford drive past me in the next days in a police car until we have some assurance that we’ve gotten past this horrible, horrible disease.”
Register shared his feelings with reporters after the meeting adjourned.
“I just did not feel it was prudent to put this officer back in a police car,” he said. “He was a SWAT officer and there had been admittedly been more than up to exceeding five times when he had done the same thing. He had just not been caught.”
There was also disagreement amongst the rank-and-file in the department over whether Officer Gifford should remain on the force, the Florida Times-Union reported.
Phil Vogelsang, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) attorney who represented Officer Gifford, said the firing was unfair because other officers who had gotten DUIs off-duty in 2021 had only received suspensions.
“It is ‘manifestly unjust’ to treat an officer who gets a DUI in his personal car differently than an officer who… is charged with administrative DUI in his JSO vehicle,” Vogelsang said. “They are the exact same thing. On or off duty does not matter.”
But the head of Internal Affairs, JSO Lieutenant Michael Shell, disagreed completely, the WJXX reported.
“There is a difference between someone who is on duty, operating a Sheriff’s Office vehicle versus someone who is off-duty,” Lt. Shell explained. “And I think that’s a delineation that would be clear to almost anyone.”