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Tension growing between city, sheriff

A Pinellas County deputy chases burglary suspects in Largo, causing confusion between city and county law enforcement agencies.

By JANE MEINHARDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


LARGO -- It started early Wednesday as a suspected burglary at a fireworks tent in Largo.

It blossomed into a chase involving a stolen car, two arrests -- and a squabble over which law enforcement agency would report the incident.

A burglary at the fireworks tent at 1015 West Bay Drive was interrupted about 4 a.m. by a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy who was passing through the city. The deputy saw a car speed away from the tent with its headlights off.

He chased the car east on East Bay Drive and arrested two suspects after their car crashed on Roosevelt Boulevard outside the city limits. After the deputy found more than $500 worth of pilfered fireworks in the stolen car, he radioed for help and asked for someone to check the fireworks tent.

Sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita said a Belleair Beach officer and another deputy went to the tent. Then the sheriff's communication center contacted Largo police, asking for an officer to respond to a burglary at the tent.

Exactly what happened next is unclear. A Largo officer who went to the tent left without taking a report about a burglary in the city. Deputies, who ended up writing the report, interpreted that as a refusal by Largo police to report the incident because it was initiated by the Sheriff's Office, which provides service for unincorporated areas and some Pinellas cities, but not Largo.

The incident comes in the wake of an offer from Sheriff Everett Rice to take over policing in Largo, an overture that was condemned by city officials.

Rice said he talked to Largo Police Chief Jerry Bloechle about Wednesday's incident.

"We were told (at the burglary scene) that since we initiated it, they're not coming out," Rice said. "I talked to the chief, and if there's a problem, he'll take care of it. I think there's some confusion."

He acknowledged that some of the confusion may be prompted by the ongoing tension between the two agencies. At least two years ago, Rice gave Largo a standing offer to take over law enforcement if the city wants. He reiterated that offer this month after Bloechle announced his retirement in the wake of a scandal involving Largo officers and female Explorers.

After an investigation, Largo police Lt. Carla Boudrot said late Wednesday that the officer involved in the burglary investigation misunderstood a memo read to patrol officers at the beginning of their shifts.

The memo by Capt. John Carroll evolved from e-mails referring to an incident Saturday in which deputies discovered a stolen car in Largo and discussed with a Largo officer what agency would take the call and handle the report.

Largo police Lt. Michael Dunleavy sent an e-mail to the officer that said: "We have experienced this before. Increased presence of deputies in our areas and on our calls, just to show the green and white presence. No doubt the command staff at the (Sheriff's Office) has been given the marching orders to do just that due to the current climate."

Dunleavy briefed Carroll about the incident. Carroll's e-mail reply reads: "We will always do the right thing in these situations by providing the police service when another agency refuses to do so. We will absolutely back up officers from other agencies ... but we are not to be used to clean up after other departments. "The message is this: If a deputy initiates an enforcement action in Largo, they should expect to stay with it. We'll take the assist, and they'll take the primary (report)," the memo concluded.

Boudrot said patrol supervisors were scheduled to discuss the memo again with officers to prevent any other problems.

"It was truly a misinterpretation of Capt. Carroll's memo," she said.

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