St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Chief Klein's balance isn't an act

Sid Klein is one of the state's longest-serving police chiefs. He is also an innovative, savvy administrator.

Published January 1, 2006

CLEARWATER - Twice, cancer has struck Sid Klein's family.

In 1996, it stole Barbara, his wife of 28 years.

Last year, it took wife Lois.

For Klein, a stoic, private man with few close friends, it was enough to make him question his own faith. Does God really exist? If so, why would He allow such terrible things?

"Everybody says there is a reason for it, but I haven't found it," Klein said recently.

Through the darkest moments, Klein, 64, said he turned to the one thing that has always sustained him: work.

"During the worst of times," he said, "the police chief job has always brought me back to some sort of balance and purpose and mission in my life - because I've never let go of it."

This week, Klein marks his 25th year as the city's police chief. The anniversary makes him one of the longest-serving chiefs in a state where the average tenure is about 21/2 years, according to the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

Klein, who moved to Miami from New York as a young boy, began his career at age 21 as a deputy in Dade County. He worked in a jail, on patrol and as an undercover detective investigating the drug trade and corruption inside the agency.

He later went to the Denver area city of Lakewood, Colo., to join the police department, where he rose to second in command and earned the name "Iceman" for his cool demeanor.

As Clearwater's chief, Klein quickly developed a reputation as an innovative thinker and a savvy administrator who could get his projects funded, either by City Hall or through outside grants.

He brought to the city a philosophy of community policing, assigning officers to particular neighborhoods so they could develop trust with residents. He eventually opened neighborhood substations, including one in North Greenwood in 1985.

Klein's style brought complaints from some officers, who found him too aloof, too formal.

"He was always three steps ahead of you," said Officer Jon Walser, the police union's president. "I think people took that as impersonal."

But that's changed, Walser said.

"He's been through the trials of Job in his personal life and he's never let that affect his professional responsibilities," he said, adding that Klein's heartache was felt throughout the department. "It broke down a lot of barriers. The rank and file were able to see him as a man and not just as a commander in chief."

Klein considers himself an activist. In the mid 1990s, he led the effort to open a homeless shelter. Then in 2001, the department created a Hispanic outreach program to serve the city's growing immigrant population, much of which was undocumented.

"Klein's very much on the cutting edge," said Tony Velong, a former Clearwater police lieutenant who is now chief of the Temple Terrace department. "He sees people in need and he tries to fill that need."

Klein's tenure has not been without controversy. His relationship with the Church of Scientology has been strained. In 1997, thousands of church members surrounded police headquarters, chanting "Sid Klein, what's your crime?"

The passing years, however, have only emboldened Klein to take risks and venture into social issues not traditionally considered police territory, he said.

"You become better positioned," Klein said. "Politicians are less apt to mess with you."

That wasn't always true.

* * *

In 1989, Klein nearly left Clearwater.

He announced at a news conference that he wanted the challenge of working as a chief in a larger city and planned to leave within six months.

In truth, he had no such intention.

Speaking publicly about the incident for the first time, Klein recalled that then-City Manager Ron Rabun called him to his office. The press was waiting in the next room, and Rabun informed Klein that he was to announce his departure.

Klein objected. He wasn't ready to go.

"Will you at least give me six months to find another job?" Klein asked Rabun, who agreed.

Klein says he used that six-month reprieve to gather allies. Then he watched as an election changed the balance of power on the City Commission.

In the end, Klein stayed. Rabun left.

"I learned to sharpen my political claws," he said. "This job - and that day - takes having the political courage to do the right thing."

Rabun, now a county administrator in South Carolina, said he couldn't confirm or dispute Klein's recollection. He said he doesn't recall precisely what happened.

"Sid and I agreed on things about 90 percent of the time," he said.

Klein's relationship with current City Manager Bill Horne is better, both men say.

"He's clearly in that top tier of professionals," Horne said of Klein.

* * *

The International Association of Chiefs of Police recognized the department in 1999 as one of the five finest community policing agencies in the world.

At the heart of Klein's strategy are the nine neighborhood substations he opened on the theory that proximity engenders cooperation between police and residents.

The one in predominantly black North Greenwood marked its 20th anniversary this fall.

"We've built up a level of trust from the community that we are part of the community and we're not a bunch of whip-cracking crackers," Klein said.

The substation has drawn both praise and suspicions. Through the years, some residents have complained that the facility was understaffed. Others said it created a feeling that the neighborhood was under siege.

One officer assigned there earned the nickname "The Terminator." Residents' complaints of harassment and mistreatment led to a petition and in 1996, a protest. The officer was transferred and ultimately resigned.

"The relationship with the chief over the years has been up and down to say the least," said Jonathan Wade, a social worker and president of the North Greenwood Association.

Wade said residents have not fully accepted the officers in the substation as neighbors. More outreach efforts are needed, he said.

"I think the chief is on the right track," Wade said. "He's always been more than ready to listen."

* * *

Above all, homelessness may be the most stubborn issue Klein has faced.

He got off to a rough start. In 1982, shortly after he took over, he was criticized for allowing officers to take some transients from downtown and drop them off in Pasco County.

"It became very obvious to me that the traditional methods, which had gone on for all of history of law enforcement, weren't solving the problems," Klein said.

The city asked Klein in 1993 to do something about the growing number of homeless. Digging into the issue, he discovered how easy it is to become homeless.

"I was not in the business of saving souls," said Klein, who avoids labeling himself as liberal or conservative. "My goal was to approach it from developing a public safety solution."

After several experiments, such as creating a cold weather shelter, the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project was formed, bringing together the Salvation Army, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Clearwater Housing Authority and police. The goal was to link food, shelter and resources to help the homeless get off the streets permanently.

"Food is a big motivator," said Klein, who is CHIP's board president. "And if you're a homeless person and you want to eat, you go get enrolled in the CHIP program."

For all the successes, Klein sees homelessness in Pinellas County, including Clearwater, only getting worse. And until there is a countywide effort with a permanent funding source, like a gas tax, "we're going to be continually tilting at windmills," he said.

* * *

Before he came to Clearwater, Klein said he had read newspaper clippings about the Church of Scientology and knew it would be an issue he would have to face.

He opened an investigation into the church soon after he arrived and it continued for 18 years. By 1994, detectives amassed the largest case file in department history but did not develop a single charge.

Most troubling, Klein said, was the case of Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 after a 17-day stay at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel.

No one was ever prosecuted in her death.

"I have no regrets, nor do I have any reservations about the cases that we investigated," Klein said. "The recurring theme, when we had legitimate evidence of a crime, was that ultimately the victim or victims would disappear or restitution was made and prosecutions did not happen."

Church spokesman Ben Shaw said relations between the church and the police department now are professional and cooperative. Shaw, however, disputed Klein's recollection of the past.

"The truth is that 20 years ago, a few rogue police intelligence people shopped their allegations to any prosecutors who they could think of," he said in a written statement. "No case was ever prosecuted because there was no evidence."

In 1997, thousands of Scientologists demonstrated against the police and the St. Petersburg Times, marching around both buildings. Many accused Klein's officers of not acting on their complaints.

"I continue to afford them, just as I did when I arrived here, the same degree of protection and security as anybody else," Klein said. "But that doesn't mean I have to like them."

Shaw said he was most interested in the future, rather than rehashing the past. He praised Klein's CHIP program.

"It's admirable that he has held the position he has for so long," he said.

* * *

Klein, who says his job as chief will probably be his last in law enforcement, said he plans to work for at least a few more years before considering a change.

"I don't play golf. I don't hang out with the boys," he said. "I've seen too many of my colleagues who after 20 years retire, become old men, get sick and die."

He has toyed with idea of one day entering politics and has changed his party affiliation from independent to Republican. He has even attended a Leadership Pinellas seminar for aspiring candidates.

"I kind of walked away from that just shaking my head," he said. "I could never go out and just ask for money. I don't like to have to schmooze. I don't know if I'd be good at it."

Klein is in no rush. There is so much more to do.

In the coming year, he wants to enhance the department's ability to respond to disasters, from hurricanes to a terrorist's bomb. He has a dozen of his public access TV shows to produce. He hopes to set up an exchange program with police in Mexico.

Law enforcement is dynamic, he said.

"I wonder in this evolving world where is it going to end?" Klein said. "Is the police car of the future going to have a missile launcher on the top? Those things are changing and they're going to keep changing."

Life outside of police work can be just as complex, said Klein, who seems at ease talking about his job but avoids eye contact when things turn personal.

"Getting back into a social environment is what I'm working at," he said.

He has begun dating a woman whose husband died from cancer. Together, they go dancing or sail out on his boat, the Lady Lo, with a bottle of wine.

"It's good to experience those emotions again," he said. "There's got to be a reason for beautiful sunsets and the blue water."

[Last modified January 1, 2006, 00:28:15]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters