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A Times Editorial

Chief must step up, take responsibility

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002

Inverness Police Chief Joseph Elizarde owes an apology to the man and woman he browbeat on Tuesday at the Happy Dayz Diner.

And if Elizarde won't apologize voluntarily for his outrageous behavior, City Manager Frank DiGiovanni should fire him.

On New Year's Day, witnesses say Elizarde went into a rage at the U.S. 41 eatery after learning that his take-out order was not prepared as quickly as he thought it should be. After arguing on the telephone, and then in person, with the owners, Elizarde was asked to leave. Butch Ramsey put his hand on Elizarde's shoulder and pointed to the door. That's when the police chief flashed his badge and announced he was arresting Ramsey on a charge of misdemeanor battery.

Elizarde, 53, wasn't wearing his uniform that day, but he discredited it just the same. Such outrageous behavior is inexcusable from the city's top law enforcement officer. The public expects the police chief to keep a clear head, not butt heads over inconsequential disagreements.

If, as witnesses claim, all Ramsey did was put his hand on Elizarde's shoulder, the chief overreacted. He is trained to defuse tense situations, not allow them to escalate.

But this situation wasn't even intense; it was what most people would characterize as a routine occurence. Most consumers who have a disagreement with a merchant about service or workmanship are content to register a verbal complaint, or take their business elsewhere. That is what the chief should have done.

It is always disappointing to see a public servant use bad manners and bad judgment, but sometimes it happens. However, Elizarde took it a step farther by misusing his authority to punish Ramsey. He had the businessman handcuffed and sent to jail for several hours for an offense that probably wouldn't even result in an arrest had it not involved the top cop.

To make matters worse, Elizarde has not shown any remorse for his actions, choosing instead to label Ramsey, who has no criminal record, as violent. The chief then used more histrionics to defend his unacceptable actions by saying residents "should know their chief is not a wimp." To the majority of folks who learned as young adults that there is nothing wimpy or cowardly about keeping your cool when those around you lose theirs, that comment is remarkably immature.

Elizarde has been temporarily suspended, but with pay, and the charges against Ramsey have been referred to the State Attorney's Office for review. We urge prosecutors to give this trifling matter the attention it deserves: Drop it. The Ramseys have suffered enough humiliation.

In the meantime, the city manager and council members must weigh the consequences of Elizarde's misconduct. A stern written reprimand, coupled with the suspension, should suffice if he accepts the responsibility for allowing this situation to escalate to a ridiculous proportion. If he does not, his credibility will be irreparably harmed, and the council should demand his resignation.

When he applied for the chief's job in early 1999, Elizarde wrote in his cover letter: "The history, customs and living habits of a community must be understood, respected and embraced."

It's time for him to live up to those words by seeking the forgiveness of all city residents. What he has done to one, he has done to all, including himself.

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