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Acting chief to focus on changes

After sex scandals and allegations, the city's new acting police chief says her priorities are to restore the department's reputation and improve morale.

By ERIC STIRGUS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


LARGO -- Judy Gershkowitz, appointed Friday as the city's acting police chief, said her primary focus will be to restore the public's faith in a department whose reputation has been soiled in recent months by a sex scandal and several sexual harassment accusations.

Gershkowitz said she will also seek to keep her officers better informed about the day-to-day operations of the department and hopes to forge better relations with the news media.

Exactly three years after she was named deputy chief, Gershkowitz laid out her agenda in a memo and during a meeting with officers Friday afternoon.

"On the heels of such turmoil, every action of every member of this department will be closely scrutinized and rightfully so," Gershkowitz wrote in the memo. . "We have an obligation to offer the citizens of Largo the best police services available and I am confident you will continue to rise to this challenge."

Gershkowitz replaces police Chief Jerry Bloechle, who has taken a less active role in the department since announcing plans last month to retire effective Oct. 1.

"It's kind of exciting," she said in an interview Friday afternoon. "I'm hoping we're to a point where we can close this thing and get on to other things," she added, referring to the recent problems within the department.

Bloechle, a reserve special agent in the Air Force Reserve Office of Special Investigations, has military duties for the entire month of August and for two weeks in September, Gershkowitz said, explaining why she was named acting chief two months before his retirement officially takes effect.

Gershkowitz, 44, who joined the Largo Police Department in 1985, will be the first woman to lead the department, which has 128 officers and a current annual budget of $11.2-million. Gershkowitz downplayed the historical significance of her appointment, although she did say she hoped it will show other women they can reach similar heights in law enforcement.

Gershkowitz takes charge amid low morale stemming from controversy involving officers' relationships with women. A six-week investigation completed in May found three officers had had sexual relations with Explorers, a Boy Scouts-affiliated program for youths between the ages of 14 and 21 who want to learn more about police work.

The department's image took another hit last month when the city's personnel manager released a report that found Largo police officials, including Bloechle, did not take a volunteer's sexual harassment complaints seriously enough. Two other women who worked for the department have said they were harassed by Largo officers, prompting City Manager Steven Stanton to call for sexual harassment training for all Largo employees. And this week, a sergeant was demoted as the result of a sexual-harassment complaint.

Also, a day after Bloechle announced his retirement plans this past June, Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice discussed an offer to take over law enforcement duties in Largo. City officials have vehemently opposed the idea.

Gershkowitz said she hoped to improve the department's image by stressing to officers they must take an "extra step" when dealing with residents.

To keep officers better informed, Gershkowitz said she will publish the notes of command staff meetings.

Gershkowitz, who said she does not like the limelight, said she will make herself available to reporters, something she admits she did not do during the Explorer investigation.

City officials are working on putting together a list of qualities they will search for in a new chief.

Stanton, who appointed Gershkowitz, did not return telephone calls for comment.

Last month, Stanton said he will conduct a national search for a new chief, which could take as long as a year. Stanton has said he would prefer to hire someone from outside the department, although Largo officers are welcome to apply.

Gershkowitz, who said she always hoped to retire as deputy chief -- insisting that is the best job in the department -- said Friday that she had not given much thought to applying for the job.

"I would have to assess that in the future," she said.

- Times staff writer Jane Meinhardt contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files.

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