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Police superior's gesture: Was it friendly or hostile?

An officer calls it battery. An in-house inquiry has been ordered, but the officer sees that as retaliation for his grievance.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- Last January an unidentified woman called a live television show to claim that Pinellas Park police officials were covering up for Bob Hempel, the department's second in command, who had been accused of beating his wife.

Within days, a rumor began circulating through the Police Department that the caller was the wife of Charles Prichard, a rank and file officer.

Hempel and his wife denied the allegations and the State Attorney's Office never charged him with a crime. Prichard's wife did not make the call.

When Hempel heard the rumors about Prichard's wife, he approached his subordinate. He said he wanted to make sure Prichard knew he did not suspect Mrs. Prichard and make sure there were no hard feelings.

At the end of the brief conversation, Hempel touched Prichard on the shoulder.

To Hempel, it was a gentle squeeze or pat indicating camaraderie.

To Prichard, it was a punch with a closed fist that was hard enough to turn his body.

Prichard said nothing about the incident until last Monday when he asked the City Council for an outside investigation into that and other incidents in the Police Department.

Now, the situation has escalated.

Prichard recently filed a union grievance alleging that he's a victim of a "hit list" of officers targeted for firing. Now that his superiors have ordered an in-house investigation of his battery allegation, Prichard views that probe as retaliation for his grievance. Why? He thinks an in-house probe will go nowhere but be used against him in the future. He says he does not want to submit to an in-house investigation for fear the situation would be "white washed." He wants independent outsiders to look into the matter.

Hempel is calling Prichard's claim of battery "silly." He says Prichard is trying to publicly embarrass him by telling a "series of half-truths."

Police Chief David Milchan is accusing Prichard of trying to embarrass the Police Department.

Management Corporation of America has another allegation to consider. Management of America is a consulting group the City Council unanimously agreed to hire. The company will study allegations of bias, favoritism and other climate issues among police employees and make recommendations for improvement.

But if the company wants to know the truth of what happened between Hempel and Prichard, it may have a hard time.

The truth would seem to depend upon which side you believe.

A few facts are clear:

An unidentified woman telephoned the city's monthly call-in show, Meet Your Mayor and Council. She berated Mayor Bill Mischler for failing to do anything about Hempel. Hempel had been the subject of a sheriff's investigation in 1996 because of allegations that he beat his wife. The State Attorney did not file charges, and both Hempels have denied the allegations.

But police officials were so incensed by the call that they obtained a tape and tried to identify the voice. They also examined phone records to see if they could trace the call. They were unable to discover the caller's identity.

That did not stop speculation from running rampant. At some point, rumor settled on Debbie Prichard, Officer Prichard's outspoken wife.

In a memo about the incident, Hempel said, "I had a discussion with Lt. (John) Green telling him that it was not Mrs. Prichard and had no idea why that rumor was going around downstairs. Again, I never had a discussion with anyone regarding my suspicions that it was Mrs. Prichard after listening to the voice."

A few days later, Hempel spotted Prichard. As Hempel tells it in the memo, he simply wanted Prichard to know he did not suspect the man's wife. Hempel said he thought it would make Prichard feel better.

"I did not offer any apology for the rumor because I was not responsible for creating the rumor," Hempel wrote. "I wanted him to know that there was no bad feeling between the two of us."

Then Hempel touched Prichard.

"I then did either squeeze his shoulder or perhaps may have patted him on the shoulder that was intended to show I was okay with him," Hempel wrote. "I honestly do not recall exactly what happened. But there was no intention to cause him any pain and it is silly for him to perceive it as a battery."

Prichard's story was a bit different, according to the report of Sgt. George Madden, who investigated the allegations last week.

"Prichard's says after Hempel made the apology, Hempel hit him with a closed fist on the shoulder," Madden wrote. "Prichard says the punch was hard enough to turn his body."

Hempel said in his memo that allegation is "totally untrue."

"There was no battery," Hempel wrote. "The fact that a police officer trained to investigate criminal acts could construe such an incident as a battery is very disturbing to me."

Madden said Prichard denied sustaining any physical injury from the encounter.

Madden told Prichard not to talk about the incident because it was an ongoing criminal investigation.

Milchan, the police chief, weighed in on Hempel's side in a memo to City Manager Jerry Mudd.

"Officer Prichard's complaint is totally without merit. The timing of his report and the circumstances in which it was made is very suspicious as to his motive for doing so," Milchan said.

He added, "This was clearly an attempt to embarrass certain members of this department and the Police Department in general. The whole thing is rather transparent."

It's that dismissal of his allegations that Prichard said he feared. That's why he did not mention the matter earlier, he said in a letter to Mudd.

"I did not wish to make this information known for an in-house investigation where another case of "white wash' could occur," Prichard wrote.

In fact, Prichard said, the decision to have an in-house investigation was a form of retaliation. As Prichard had not mentioned a name, Milchan had no way of knowing when he assigned the case that he was not assigning the officer who allegedly committed the battery.

Mudd, however, disagreed with Prichard's conclusion.

In a letter to the officer, Mudd said he found no retaliation. But he did forward Prichard's allegations to Management of America.

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