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    Former volunteer criticizes police

    Pinellas Park is an understaffed and overburdened department and officers face situations without backup, Cliff Smith says.

    By ANNE LINDBERG

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2001


    PINELLAS PARK -- A departing police volunteer has left behind a scathing letter that in part accuses the police department of leaving neighborhoods without adequate protection.

    "My intention is not to get anybody in trouble. My intention is that the truth be told," Cliff Smith said Thursday. "I want them to admit the truth."

    "It took me almost two weeks to do this letter," he said. "It's the only way that I knew how to say it all."

    Early last week, police Chief Dorene Thomas said Smith's allegations needed to be investigated. Later in the week, she did not return phone messages asking for comment.

    Smith, owner of Quality Power Tool Service, worked more than 1,200 hours with the Volunteers in Policing program. He ticketed illegally parked cars and testified in those cases when necessary, attended accident scenes to help direct traffic and collect information, and any other duties the police wanted him to perform.

    He was praised for his efforts until early this year when he alleged in another letter to Thomas that Mayor Bill Mischler had a parking ticket fixed.

    Mischler denied the charge and a subsequent investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, and soon after, Thomas gutted the volunteers program. She reduced the number of volunteers to 20 and curtailed some of their duties, such as issuing parking tickets.

    Some of Smith's latest assertions echo complaints many Pinellas Park police officers have made in morale surveys and exit interviews -- that the department is understaffed and officers are overburdened and sometimes sent on high-priority calls without backup.

    "I'm resigning because I've totally lost my trust," Smith wrote in his March 29 letter. "I have lost my trust in the department and some (of) my city leaders."

    Here are some of the highlights from the eight pages:

    "I submit to you that there are some things that are wrong in this city and in our Police Department. In both, so many long-term employees have been sent away. It makes me wonder where the leadership is, why problems are not addressed in their infancy instead of them getting to a point where dismissal becomes necessary."

    "I could go on and on about the "call oriented' policing that leaves areas of the city unprotected and how, at times, officers are sent on high-priority calls without a back-up or told they will have one as soon as one is free.

    "I could go on about the numbers of break-ins in areas such as Mainlands and how there is usually only one officer in an entire zone and they normally stay too busy just to patrol."

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