Orlando Sentinel

Police officer caught asleep in cruiser resigns
Winter Haven Officer Thomas J. Bissett leaves the force after he didn't help a woman who fell.



By Amy L. Edwards | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted June 30, 2005


WINTER HAVEN -- When Brenda Green saw an elderly woman lying in a pool of blood on a sidewalk early this year, she thought the police officer parked nearby would help.

But when Green drove across the street and pulled up to the patrol car, she said she found Winter Haven police Officer Thomas J. Bissett asleep in his front seat.

Green honked her car's horn to try and awake the sleeping cop, but to no avail, according to an internal investigation.

He never helped the ailing woman, and didn't awake until the police chief later knocked on his car window.

Bissett resigned Monday after an internal investigation that found him in violation of Police Department policies during the Jan. 26 incident.

Bissett gave his supervisors a number of reasons why he didn't help the ailing woman, who was critically injured when she fell and died of a stroke more than two weeks later.

He did not return phone calls, but in documents released by the Winter Haven Police Department, Bissett, 42, said he suffers from sleep apnea and takes Darvocet, a prescription pain reliever. Bissett never disclosed those things to supervisors until the internal investigation.

During the review, Bissett told supervisors he did not help the ailing woman because he was not dispatched to the scene; didn't want to contribute to "onlooker" congestion; and he wouldn't have made a difference in the outcome of the medical emergency.

In a March 28 memo, Chief Paul Goward commented about Bissett's apnea: ". . . there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that this impairment has risen to the level of a disability in your case, or that in any fashion contributed to your inability or failure to respond to the emergency while you were awake."

Goward also wrote in the memo, which is addressed to Bissett: "You also argued the absurdity that you had no obligation to respond to this incident without being dispatched. A police officer who personally observes a situation, including an accident that may require his or her help, has a fundamental duty to respond, regardless of whether a dispatcher directs him or her to do so."

Winter Haven Capt. Vic Neal said Wednesday there is no way of knowing if Bissett's lack of response affected the outcome.

The woman's injuries were serious enough for paramedics to transport her via helicopter to a Lakeland hospital, where she was admitted as a trauma patient, said Polk County EMS Director Ray Chatlos.

Chatlos said he could not release details about the woman or her treatment because of health-privacy laws. A doctor ruled she died of a stroke Feb. 11. It is unclear if she had the stroke before falling or after.

"Once he observed what had happened, we would have preferred that he responded to it and rendered aid," Neal said. "We're responsible for public safety."

This is the second known instance of Bissett falling asleep on the job, Neal said. A supervisor spoke to Bissett for sleeping at work several years ago.

An officer being disciplined for sleeping on the job is fairly uncommon in metro Orlando.

Representatives with both Lake and Seminole sheriff's offices couldn't recall any instances in recent years when deputies were caught snoozing.

Since 2000, several Orange County deputies have been disciplined for sleeping at work, said Cpl. Carlos Torres, an agency spokesman.

The Polk County Sheriff's Office has just one case since 2001 of a deputy sleeping on the job.

And there are no reports of Florida Highway Patrol troopers, who spend much of their time in vehicles, snoozing.