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    Trooper climbs ranks to become new director

    By STEVE BOUSQUET

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 30, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Christopher Knight, who worked his way up from road patrolman in his hometown of Venice to regional supervisor during 20 years on the Florida Highway Patrol, became the patrol's newest director Friday.

    Knight, 44, will work to boost morale and sharpen the FHP's focus on its core mission: traffic enforcement. The choice was made by Fred Dickinson, executive director of the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

    With 1,500 officers from Pensacola to Key West, the agency has struggled with budget pressures, aging equipment and, earlier this year, racially and ethnically charged incidents of misconduct by Miami troopers. At a celebratory ceremony, Knight made it clear that the FHP has lots of room to improve.

    "We must do everything possible with the resources we have to do a much better job," Knight said. "I'm excited about being given the opportunity to help shape the future of this great organization."

    Knight said the patrol will continue to watch its own data closely to see whether racial profiling is a problem. He said talking on a cell phone while driving is a bad idea -- even while acknowledging he does it himself sometimes. The installation of computer laptops in the familiar black and tan cruisers, long delayed because of bidding disputes, should occur later this year.

    Knight's younger brother Tom, a district commander in the FHP's Pinellas Park headquarters, pinned a colonel's badge on the new boss, and the pair embraced as their parents looked on and other family members took pictures. Tom Knight said many officers were relieved that the new director was promoted from within, rather than recruited from outside.

    Knight is expected to be a much more energetic leader than Col. Charles "Curt" Hall, a low-key leader whose style some officers considered too lethargic. Hall's 35-year career at FHP officially ends today.

    Knight's candidacy benefited from enthusiastic support from rank and file officers, who organized an e-mail campaign on his behalf.

    Just last week, leaders of the International Union of Police Associations of Florida, a bargaining unit for troopers, met with Gov. Jeb Bush. At the meeting, FHP Sgt. Jim Rhyne, IUPA's chairman, said Bush asked him "point-blank" to state his preference for the top job.

    Chris Knight, Rhyne replied.

    "This will hopefully give the patrol a much-needed shot of fresh air. I think you'll see morale go up," Rhyne said. "He's well-known and well-liked throughout the FHP."

    The new colonel's personnel file glows with praise from citizens and superiors. He has received a half-dozen letters of praise for helping stranded motorists replace flat tires, and he once saved the life of an infant at a Bradenton mall whose tongue had become trapped in its windpipe.

    The trooper gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until paramedics arrived.

    Knight, one of 32 applicants for the job, outshined the two other finalists because of his superior verbal skills, Dickinson said. Asked whether he favors toughening Florida's seat belt law to give police more power to ticket people who don't use belts, Knight deftly brushed the question aside with a smile and a "Good question."

    In a closing-of-ranks gesture, the two other finalists, FHP chiefs Larry Austin and Jim Lee, stood near Knight at the ceremony.

    Austin, 48, was seeking to be the first African-American director of the patrol. According to FHP data, 18.6 percent of its officers are members of minority groups while only 4 percent of its supervisors are members of minorities.

    The starting pay for a trooper in most counties is $30,073 a year.

    Knight earns $90,698 as chief of operations for the FHP's northern region. His new salary has not been set. Dickinson said he would negotiate a contract with Knight that contains performance criteria.

    The new director, who brought his 10-year-old son Mitch to the ceremony, is so youthful looking that Dickinson joked that a background check was delayed because "Chris' juvenile records are being held."

    - Times staff writer Collins Conner and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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