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Church pays those it reviled

Off-duty Clearwater police provide security for the Church of Scientology, subject of many investigations. To some in law enforcement, the officers are crossing an ethical line.

By DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


CLEARWATER -- Every day, off-duty Clearwater police officers provide security for the Church of Scientology, which was investigated by police for 18 years but now is putting thousands of dollars in officers' pockets.

The church pays $25-an-hour for two uniformed officers to pull an 81/2-hour shift seven days a week, 365 days a year. All told, the church has paid nearly $150,000 to 110 officers since January 2000.

The arrangement is a remarkable turnaround for a department that long has mistrusted Scientology and rejected church attempts to ingratiate itself, saying no to offers of Scientology's anti-drug and criminal rehabilitation programs.

It was not an easy call, said 20-year Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein.

"Those of us in the Police Department who have dealt with this have our individual and collective memories of our experiences with the Church of Scientology," Klein said. "But nevertheless, they are a church at least in the eyes of the law. It's our responsibility to treat them, at this time, as any other church, whether we like it or not."

Klein knew his decision could open the door to criticism and questions. Indeed, a respected judge two weeks ago raised a concern. Scientology critics say the department has sold out. And while some experts do not see an ethical problem, others do.

"They shouldn't be there," said national policing expert James Fyfe, a criminal justice professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "When there's some dispute, the cops have to take a vow to be impartial. A cop cannot be impartial if he's taking money from one side."

In local circles, law enforcement leaders expressed confidence in Klein's judgment.

"It's obviously a tough decision," said Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice. "I certainly wouldn't second-guess him. It sounds like his rationale is correct. I'm just glad I'm not called upon to make that decision."

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he does not think the off-duty work will compromise Clearwater officers. But how the public sees it is "a whole different area," he said.

"It puts him (Klein) in a difficult spot primarily because there's a public perception," McCabe said. "I don't think the reality will be there's a conflict of interest . . . but the public perception is a concern."

* * *

Klein began investigating the Church of Scientology soon after he became chief in 1981. The church had moved to Clearwater in 1975, and in the late 1970s nine top church officials were convicted in Washington in a plot to steal federal government documents.

Clearwater investigators gathered intelligence for more than a decade. By 1994, detectives amassed the largest case file in department history but did not develop a single charge.

In the mid and late 1990s, a police investigation into the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson led to the first criminal charges ever filed against the church in the United States -- two felony counts eventually dropped by McCabe.

All the while, the church fought back, bitterly accusing police of harassment, corruption, discrimination and bigotry. Now, officers make vacation money providing security for Scientology.

The reversal is not lost on Detective Clarence Calloway, an 18-year veteran who was on duty one December night just three years ago when 3,000 Scientologists ringed police headquarters in an angry protest. The church said Clearwater police had helped anti-Scientology critics, thereby violating the rights of church members.

"I see total irony," said Calloway, one of the officers doing extra duty on Watterson Avenue, where the officers watch over hundreds of Scientologists as they come and go from a dining hall.

"Maybe that's what makes me a mercenary."

The arrangement came about as would any extra-duty detail. The church simply asked to hire off-duty officers for Watterson Avenue.

At the time, there was mounting tension in the tiny alley. A group of Scientology critics had moved to town and established the Lisa McPherson Trust. The critics were standing on Watterson with picket signs, calling out to passing Scientologists.

Klein said police were being summoned there daily to mediate disputes, a costly drain on resources. Posting officers in the alley at the church's expense would keep the peace without diverting on-duty officers.

From Scientology's perspective, the police have done a good job. For more than a year, Watterson Avenue has been safe, which is all the church wants, a spokesman said.

"It's not like, "Hey, it's neat to have the cops working for you,' " said Ben Shaw, director of external affairs for the church's Flag Service Organization. "Security is my responsibility. If somebody comes in here and shoots somebody, that's my responsibility."

However, veteran Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas E. Penick expressed concern two weeks ago after presiding over a lengthy hearing that included testimony from church members, church critics and officers who work the security detail.

"They are coming very dangerously close to becoming a private security force for the Church of Scientology," Penick said.

* * *

Some officers won't work security for Scientology. They remember the old days.

"There are officers who simply will not work this detail because of their strong convictions regarding the Church of Scientology," Klein said. "Many officers here over the years were personally attacked, and those memories do not fade very fast."

Klein, too, has not forgotten.

During an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, he left the room to retrieve copies of Freedom, a Scientology newspaper almost entirely dedicated to criticism of the Police Department. It's front page headline: "Secret Clearwater Police Slush Fund Revealed."

"It's unbelievable what I went through," Klein said. "This was distributed in neighborhoods throughout Clearwater and surrounding communities all the way up to Tarpon Springs. People woke up to find this in their driveway. And that's only a fraction of what I went through."

Nothing has changed between police and the church, Klein said.

In the past, he said, people whom he called "victims of Scientology" turned to the police. If new complaints arise, his department will investigate as it has in the past, the chief said.

"They're here. We're here. We're going to do our job," Klein said. "That's our relationship."

The officers standing guard on Watterson Avenue say the work simply is an opportunity to make some extra cash. The officers are paid most of the $25 hourly fee, but $2.50 of it goes to the department for administrative fees and workers' compensation expenses.

It's an easy assignment. They sit or stand outdoors, making sure cars don't whip around the corner as Scientologists get on and off buses. They also enforce a court order that requires members of the Trust and church to stay 10 feet apart.

Most days, nothing happens -- a credit, the officers say, to their stabilizing presence.

"I do any off-duty job I can take because I have two small kids and a wife at home," said Officer Rodney Johnson. "It's like $173 and some change to stand here for eight hours. I want to go on vacation this year."

Klein says department rules, training bulletins, close monitoring by supervisors and legal research are in place to prevent his officers from being compromised. They know who they are working for, "which is the city of Clearwater Police Department and not the church and not the Lisa McPherson Trust," Klein said.

Klein also said he hopes the security detail will end soon. His department is trying to broker an accord between the two sparring parties.

Department rules say that off-duty officers should not be provided to an organization that is "questionable" or for an event that is "potentially compromising." Throughout the city, police have off-duty agreements with 51 organizations, many of them churches. Experts say it would be discriminatory for the department to say no to Scientology.

At the Lisa McPherson Trust, Scientology critics say the Police Department ought to be suspicious of the church's motives. The church's goal is to win the allegiance of the department, said Trust president Stacy Brooks, a former Scientologist.

"It's not the same as Publix hiring off-duty cops, or Walgreens," Brooks said. "No other organization I know of has an agenda to indoctrinate the members of the police force to their way of thinking."

Scientology rejects that notion. There is no gain for the church beyond security, said Shaw, a church spokesman.

"Why do they not want police here?" Shaw asked. "Well, I can tell you why. If you are committing crimes, you certainly don't want police to be around."

Given the testiness of the relationship between the church and the McPherson Trust, it is inappropriate for the police to provide security for Scientology, said Fyfe, a retired New York City police officer now at Temple University.

"It's such a fundamental thing," Fyfe said. "Think about all the things that could go wrong and the question of the perception. . . . It's a real snake pit."

-- Contact reporter Deborah O'Neil at 445-4159 or deborah@sptimes.com.

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