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Morale long an issue in Police Department

In Pinellas Park, employees have complained of high turnover and biased promotions for at least the past five years.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- The recent flurry of claims that the Police Department is a hostile workplace where favoritism, discrimination and harassment are nurtured should be no surprise to city officials.

Pinellas Park police employees have been complaining for at least the past five years about poor treatment in the department. Many of those woes were clearly stated in exit interviews given to people who were leaving the city's employ. Those interviews were routinely forwarded to police Chief David Milchan and the city manager.

If those complaints were dismissed as griping from disgruntled former employees, warnings also came through the police union from those who chose to remain with the department.

The union rated the elimination of high turnover, low morale and biased promotions as one of its goals during the 1998 contract negotiations. At that time, the union leadership accused Milchan of "irresponsible" decisions.

But Milchan apparently did nothing to fix the situation. Why not? Because, according to the chief, those problems do not exist.

That was his position when the union complained. It's a stand he maintains to this day, despite the repeated complaints from departing employees and the concerns of at least two city managers.

It's a stand he maintains in the face of state and federal claims filed by three female officers that they were sexually harassed and discriminated against.

He holds that position despite union grievances filed by two male officers alleging the department has a "hit list" of those targeted for dismissal based on age and the perception that the officers on that list are disruptive.

Beyond saying that his department has no problems and will be vindicated when a climate survey by an outside consultant is finished, Milchan isn't saying much about those issues these days.

"When I get an EEOC complaint such as what we have, that spells out future litigation, pending litigation, and I think it would be foolish to make any comments about that," Milchan said Thursday.

If Milchan is not speaking now, others have been doing plenty of talking.

It started with people who were leaving the department for other employment. Among those complaints over at least the past five years were claims of favoritism, low morale and racist, ageist and sexist comments and conduct.

It was enough to make two city managers take notice.

"There was enough there to raise concerns from where I sit," City Manager Jerry Mudd said.

So he spoke with Milchan.

"He would mention that there were challenges in the Police Department with all of the service calls they were making and that they were very busy and that was part of the problem," Mudd said.

Milchan's solution was to ask for more officers.

The chief, said Mudd, would also suggest that the employees were going to other jobs and were just unhappy people.

"The chief would make comments like that," Mudd said. "Having said that, I continued to have concerns."

Those concerns were not enough to do anything until last week.

That's after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims and union grievances were filed. That was also after a police officer, his wife and some council members called for an outside investigation. That was also after Jane Clark, the city's personnel director, found communication problems in the department and recommended hiring an outside consultant.

That still leaves the question: Why did it take so long for someone to do something?

Former City Manager Jim Madden, who was abruptly fired in July 1997 with little explanation, said he did want to take action.

"That's one of the issues I had with the police chief," Madden said of the allegations in the exit interviews. "I knew that there were some problems there."

So Madden confronted Milchan with the claims that the chief played favorites.

"He said, "Yes, I do play favorites,' " Madden said. "I was absolutely floored by that."

The chief's explanation, Madden said, was that he rewards those who do a good job with favors. If employees are not considered to be doing a good job, Milchan told Madden he does not reward them.

Madden said he went "round and round" with the chief about that. Madden wanted the chief to change his style, to help shore up his weakest officers to strengthen the entire organization. But a change was not destined to happen then.

"I got fired," Madden said.

Milchan declined to comment on Madden's statements.

Favoritism was only one problem Madden saw in the department.

"The other issue I had was just the number of people leaving the department," Madden said. "It seems he had a very high turnover rate."

That continues to this day. Not counting school crossing guards, 84 employees have left the Police Department since 1995. Fifty of those were rank-and-file police officers, and one was a master police officer. That's from a department with 63 rank-and-file officers.

Madden said Milchan explained that most of those were leaving for jobs at other agencies, such as the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. But Madden said he did not find that an acceptable explanation.

"That's not the real, true story," Madden said. "They're leaving to go to the Sheriff's Office because they were not happy about what was happening with them or what was happening in the department."

Madden said he also heard tales that supervising officers did retaliate against officers they perceived as being troublemakers or who did not fit in. One of those was Donna Saxer, who is one of the three officers who filed EEOC complaints.

"I heard innuendoes and I heard things secondhand," Madden said. "They were retaliating against Donna Saxer. I heard about that one. There was nothing I could do at that time. I was going out."

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