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Chief options: Apologize or turn in badge

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002

The new year was less than 12 hours old when the city of Inverness was dealt its first major issue of 2002: How to deal with an out-of-control police chief?

When the top law enforcement official in the city displays a spectacular lack of judgment and abuses his authority in a destructive, petty manner, residents must wonder if they need to fear the man they pay to protect their city.

Since the police chief is not an elected position, residents have to rely on those city officials who have authority to rein in this loose cannon. In Inverness, that power begins and ends with City Manager Frank DiGiovanni.

On Friday, DiGiovanni announced that he had placed police Chief Joseph Elizarde on paid administrative leave while the city attorney looks into the matter, a fact-finding mission that may take a week or so.

Presumably, the attorney will talk to the same people who have been quoted in stories all week about the New Year's Day incident at Happy Dayz Diner on U.S. 41, in which Elizarde had the restaurant owner arrested for touching him ("manhandled" is how the apparently delicate cop described it) in a dispute over a hamburger order.

And assuming the witnesses and those involved, Elizarde and diner owner Butch Ramsey, give the same accounts that they have given others already, what then? Will DiGiovanni act first or wait until the State Attorney's Office finishes its criminal investigation?

The answer was a glorified shrug of the shoulders.

DiGiovanni was careful not to telegraph what his decision will be, but it doesn't take a Nostradamus to predict how this issue will be resolved: Elizarde is as good as gone.

Speaking about what he expects from a police chief, DiGiovanni used phrases like "you have to set an example and lead," and "you have to earn respect in the community." Most telling was this: "You don't have the luxury of losing it (your temper)."

DiGiovanni hasn't survived all of these years in the highly political atmosphere of City Hall by being naive. This issue has generated more negative publicity, widespread citizen outrage and embarrassment than anything else that has happened in Inverness in years, and DiGiovanni is not about to spend all of his political capital defending the indefensible.

When given an opening to say something in support of the chief, when asked if Elizarde can recover from all of this and once again be effective, DiGiovanni was hesitant and noncommittal. "That remains to be seen" was as far as he would go.

His nonanswer spoke volumes. Look for Elizarde, who has nearly 30 years as a law enforcement officer under his belt, to retire or otherwise fade away.

It's a no-brainer that after the first round of stories broke about this ridiculous incident, the chief should have immediately apologized to the owners, Butch and Judy Ramsey, and to the citizens of the city for his behavior. Even if he felt he was justified in being angry over his lunch order, he should have realized the larger issues involved.

Instead, he has held his ground like a petulant child. And like a naughty child, he's now been placed in time out.

That's not the sort of behavior that taxpayers expect from their police chief, and they've let the city know in a flood of phone calls and letters. Expect a huge crowd to show up at the Inverness City Council meeting on Tuesday night, and they won't be there to talk about the new water and sewer lines.

No matter what happens to Elizarde now, it won't erase the trouble he has created for the Ramseys.

Already, Butch Ramsey has suffered the indignity of being hauled out of his place of business in front of his family, employees and customers. He has been humiliated by being handcuffed like a common criminal and taken to jail, where he had to wait for three hours in his socks after jail officials took his shoes.

Ramsey and his wife have taken a significant financial hit because neither was able to work at their fledgling restaurant on a busy holiday as he was in jail and she was pulling together $500 for his bail. They now will have to hire a lawyer to make this travesty of justice go away and take more time away from their business to attend court hearings -- more of their hard-earned money (as well as your tax dollars) wasted.

By far the most serious impact is that Ramsey, who has never had so much as a traffic ticket, now has an arrest record. Whenever he has to fill out paperwork for anything from a business loan to a job application, if he's asked if he has ever been arrested, he'll have to answer yes. This unfair blemish will haunt him forever.

Among the reactions to this embarrassing ordeal are renewed calls for the city to disband the Police Department and turn over law enforcement duties to the Sheriff's Office. Given the city's long history of trouble with its police chiefs, it's a question worth pursuing.

The reason the city has always given for maintaining its own force is that the local officers get to know residents and can better do what they are paid to do: Protect and serve.

In this case, Elizarde did neither.

If the city were run like our school system, where children are given exactly zero chances to make bad decisions, he would already have been fired. Luckily for him, the rest of society is not so draconian and gives adults second chances. Whether he deserves one is a moot point because it's unlikely that DiGiovanni will be so forgiving.

It's not too late for Elizarde to try to salvage his career and reputation, but he has a choice to make. He can immediately apologize and try to make amends to the residents of Inverness, starting with the Ramseys. Or he can stick to his guns and try to weather the hurricane of public opinion that is sweeping through Inverness.

In that case, he can stop by City Hall and drop off his badge as he is being blown out of town.

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