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Politics

Juvenile Justice gets a chief

By ALEX LEARY
Published January 5, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday picked Tallahassee's police chief to lead the Department of Juvenile Justice, an often-troubled state agency still reeling from the death of a 14-year-old boy at one of its boot camps.

Walt McNeil, the city's first black police chief, replaces Anthony Schembri, a former New York corrections official who drew criticism even as he undertook steps to improve the agency and boost employee morale.

"I couldn't think of a better person to bring in," Crist said during an afternoon news conference at the capitol, McNeil standing at his back.

"Just observing him you get a keen sense that, No. 1, he's a gentleman, and he's a great public servant," Crist said.

McNeil, 51, takes over an agency that has had no shortage of problems, including the deaths of several youths in its custody, most recently 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson at the Panama City boot camp.

The Anderson beating, which happened exactly a year ago today, has led to the arrest of seven guards and a nurse and the demise of boot camps, which were run by sheriff's offices with Juvenile Justice Department oversight. Anderson was black and most of the guards and the nurse are white, fueling accusations of racism.

Crist on Thursday called the death "one of the saddest and most tragic cases that's ever hurt our state," but indicated it did not play a role in the selection of McNeil.

The police chief deflected a question about how he thought his new agency handled the case, noting it is now the subject of a lawsuit. "Certainly we're going to do everything we can do ... to make sure we prevent those kinds of things from occurring in the future," he said.

A sense of perspective

Tallahassee Mayor John Marks, who is also African-American, said McNeil's race could lend perspective to the job but McNeil's best asset is his focus on youth. McNeil started the Police Athletic League and a summer drug prevention camp.

"Tallahassee's loss is the state's gain," Marks said.

"It's very encouraging news," said Tallahassee attorney Ben Crump, who represents the Anderson family. "Walt McNeil is a person who cares deeply about people. I know him to be a good man."

McNeil said he enters the position with no preconceived ideas, and that he would first assess the agency and its programs. "I don't go into this not understanding the tremendous responsibilities I have."

A 'holistic' approach

He described a "holistic" approach to juvenile justice, saying the first goal is prevention and education but "we have a responsibility also to make sure that when children do commit crimes ... that we act swiftly and appropriately to make sure that the citizens of our state are protected."

The Juvenile Justice Department has 5,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $700-million. It has roughly 8,000 youths in residential facilities and about 27,000 on probation. The Police Department has 540 full and part-time employees, including 345 sworn officers, and an annual budget of $42-million.

McNeil is the second Democrat the Republican governor has picked to lead a key agency, though McNeil has never served as an elected official. Last week, Crist named former Attorney General Bob Butterworth as secretary of the Department of Children and Families.

Grew up in Chicago

Born in Laurel, Miss., McNeil grew up in Chicago, where his mother fled a husband who abused alcohol. He returned to Mississippi to finish high school and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1977. He got a master's from St. Johns University in Springfield, La.

He read about the Tallahassee Police Department in a trade publication, drove south for an interview and got a job as a patrolman. McNeil became assistant chief in 1994, and three years later he got the head job.

McNeil is married and has three children, age 30 to 15. His oldest daughter, Tara Collins, works in the Juvenile Justice Department's communication office. She will move to a different agency.

He will earn $120,000, about $10,000 less than his current salary.

Bio box

Walter A. McNeil

Personal: 51 years old, married to Gloria McNeil. He has three children.

Job: Tallahassee police chief.

Community service: Board member, Boys and Girls Town of Tallahassee; Tallahassee Southside Rotary Club.

THE RECORD: The agency's troubled history. 4B

TIMELINE: juvenile justice problems

2003

- In June, Omar Paisley, 17, died after a burst appendix, even though he had reportedly complained of pain for three days. Miami-Dade's Juvenile Detention Center workers did not call 911.

- In May, Danny Matthews, 17, died from injuries suffered in a fight at the Pinellas Juvenile Detention Center. An officer in training said he "accidentally unlocked" the cell doors of two youths who had threatened each other all day and had essentially agreed to fight each other.

2005

- Lee Donton, a teenage convicted sex offender, was charged with two counts of sexual battery against a severely mentally retarded 15-year-old while both were inmates at a Tallahassee juvenile detention center.

2006

- Martin Lee Anderson, 14, died at a Panama City boot camp in January.

- The first autopsy said strenuous exercise triggered an unusual blood reaction because of a sickle cell trait. The body was exhumed in March and a second autopsy was performed. The results of the second autopsy, released in May, said he died from suffocation after he was forced to inhale ammonia fumes while someone held his mouth shut.

- In September, a court-ordered review of the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center was released. It said the center failed to provide requested substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, despite a state law requiring the state provide these services.

- During the same month, at the Miami-Dade Juvenile Detention Center, the department investigated the theft from a lockup safe of more than $100,000 worth of personal property from juveniles detained at the facility.

 

[Last modified January 5, 2007, 01:26:59]


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