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Struggle between sheriff, police ends in shift of school coverage

A plan to have deputies take over all school resource posts except for St. Petersburg was criticized as a power grab by the sheriff.

Published March 4, 2007


TARPON SPRINGS - A power struggle between Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats and several city police departments over the public school beat last year is quietly creeping to a resolution.

The months of turf battles amounted to relatively minor jurisdictional shifts. Currently, city police officers patrol local middle and high schools or split the work with sheriff's deputies. Next year, this balance will tip only in Tarpon Springs, when local police replace the pair of sheriff's deputies at the high school.

But the detente comes after a stormy round of territorial scuffles that began last spring.

It started when word leaked out about preliminary plans for the Sheriff's Office to take over all of the school resource posts except in St. Petersburg. The purpose was to create a single districtwide set of standard protocols and policies on matters such as Tasers, restraints and trespassing. To local officials, however, the proposal meant surrendering turf to the sheriff. That prospect was met with particular resistance from four cities - Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs.

City officials argued that local police were better equipped to meet the needs of their particular communities. And despite the fact that the proposal originated from Pinellas Schools superintendent Clayton Wilcox, some city officials viewed the switch as a telling sign of the sheriff's imperial plans to consolidate the 12 Pinellas cities that have police departments into a single countywide law enforcement agency.

Impassioned local officials flocked to the School Board meeting when Wilcox presented his proposal, Coats said.

"The chiefs brought in reinforcements, so to speak," Coats said. "I think the School Board was politically intimidated and decided not to move forward with Wilcox's recommendation."

Coats decided that the cities' officials made a strong case. "If these schools are so important to your community, why don't you take control of all of them?" Coats said.

The sheriff called the cities on their bluff, pushing them to back their convictions with budgetary sacrifices, since the School Board covers less than half the Sheriff's Office costs for the deputies assigned to schools, Coats said.

Instead of taking over, he planned to withdraw his deputies completely.

Coats sent an e-mail to Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris, notifying her that his two deputies at Tarpon Springs High School would not be returning next year. He notes that his decision comes "after learning how important it is for your police department to have interaction with the schools."

"I suggest you budget accordingly," Coats wrote.

Tarpon Springs police Sgt. Barbara Templeton said city officers would be assigned to the high school next year, but Chief Mark LeCouris is still working on arrangements. Tarpon police are already working at the elementary and middle schools.

Coats said he was surprised that Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein declined his offer to stand down and withdraw the three deputies manning the middle schools.

"They were crying or whining; I'm surprised that these folks are resisting or refusing to take over," Coats said.

"We have neither the money nor the officers," said Wayne Shelor, a spokesman for the Clearwater Police Department.

Pinellas Park has no plans to change the current arrangement of shared duties with the Sheriff's Office. In places like Largo, where the Police Department provides all four school resource officers to the local public schools, the battle ended once the School Board balked at a wholesale takeover by the Sheriff's Office.

"I wish that the School Board would help fund them," Largo police Chief Lester Aradi said. "We do take seriously the commitment to our youth, and we will stay involved no matter what."

[Last modified March 3, 2007, 19:44:32]

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