Hard Candy – To Serve and Protect

I really never thought I’d vote to get rid of the St. Pete Beach police department, but that’s what I’ll do this Tuesday when I head to the polls. It’s weird; I don’t even want to vote to get rid of our police department. Part of me feels like I need to apologize to the fine men and women who protect me, but more and more, I feel like it’s their police chief who owes them the apology. You see, while they all swore to serve and protect the community in which they work, their chief didn’t seem to have their back.

In February, 1998, Chief David Romine accepted the job as police chief in Winter Haven. He told the Lakeland Ledger he led by example. In July 2002, he resigned amid accusations from officers – some of whom were supervisors – that his management style contributed to low morale. Romine himself said he expected to hear he “wasn’t out enough” in the community.

History has a nasty way of repeating itself.

Look, the chief’s always been friendly to me, and there’s no question he does some fantastic work with kids. I wavered on whether or not to submit this column, because, as a person, I like and respect the Chief. I’m also aware that criticizing the police chief in a small town is really no way to win points, and I’m pretty sure if we end up keeping the police I’ve just made my life a living hell. But the fact remains that the officers patrolling our little strip of paradise never had a fighting chance, and yes, I blame the chief for that.

Let’s stop playing games about why they’re going away. It’s not money, although the city will save a lot by switching to the Sheriff. It’s not because we have a huge unfunded pension – $22 million – because that won’t go away by getting rid of the force. It’s not even because the police want to leave, because they wouldn’t if the city hadn’t changed the pension plan so that the officers had almost no hope of collecting a pension. The cops only want to leave because they know they’ll likely never see their pension; if we hadn’t changed the pension plan, they’d be fighting this like crazy. This isn’t my opinion; this is what many officers have told me. Some of them also tell me they blame the city manager, which I get, but before we all rush to cane Mike Bonfield, let’s remember his loyalty lies with the entire city while one would have hoped the police chief’s would lay with his men.

Like the Winter Haven department, we have what I would call “crippling morale” issues, and no, the chief isn’t out on the street nearly enough. He has failed to show us why we should spend such a massive chunk on our police department when the Sheriff will do just as well.

Also, we have drunk drivers, meth hookers who offer oral satisfaction for about $13, and a pill trade on west Corey that reminds me of a beachy version of “Drugstore Cowboy.” What has the chief done about that? Well, when I asked him about west Corey, he told me the police hadn’t done more because the city “hadn’t made it a priority” for him. I find that laughable. What kind of police officer needs to be told that we have a huge pill problem in Pinellas County? Two years ago we had one death per day resulting from prescription drug use; the county had a task force. But our chief chose inaction because no one told him to make it a priority.

As for the rest of it, I have no earthly idea. The department doesn’t exactly go out of its way to keep us informed, and by “us” I mean both the Gabber and the residents.

Let me also say, I cannot fathom that this would ever happen in Gulfport. Why? Chief Rob Vincent goes out of his way to maintain a force to be reckoned with. He brags on his team’s education and training. He’s active in the community, surveying residents and asking what they need. He finds money for the force through grants, and, although he doesn’t live in the city, it’s not uncommon to see him here on his days off, eating dinner at O’Maddy’s or dressed up like a pirate at a football game. His department publishes an annual report. He shows up at every city council meeting and, as such, can answer questions immediately should they arise. His every action distinguishes his department.

I realize Chief Romine has a lot more experience, but he likely would have served his men and women better by taking a page from Chief Vincent’s book. I’m not suggesting the St. Pete Beach police have lessor skills or training than Gulfport. Every officer on the beach that I’ve met is proud of their work and loves their community. Even the one who tickets me from time to time is nothing short of courteous and professional. But the chief – a chief who has his own retirement in the bag and apparently already collects a pension from south Florida – has done precious little to help his own force.

There’s nothing that can be done now. Our officers have served us well; of that, I have personal experience. I wish all of them the best, no matter how the vote turns out this coming Tuesday. I wish you all bright futures, long lives, and secure pensions.

And strong leadership.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com. Or, quite possibly, the county jail, depending on Tuesday’s vote.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.