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Police captain attacks handling of department

The city mishandled operation of the Pinellas Park police department, writes the captain who was passed over for promotion to chief.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- A top-level police officer has blasted the city manager's leadership as ineffective and condemned the claims of mistreatment in the department as unbelievable.

"It is the leadership at City Hall that needs to be examined and improved," Pinellas Park police Capt. Bob Hempel wrote in an eight-page memo, dated Sept. 10, to the city manager and the City Council.

Hempel had been groomed for leadership by former police Chief David Milchan, who quit amid controversy two weeks ago. Hempel often was in charge of the department in Milchan's absence, but the city manager passed over him and another captain, appointing Dorene Thomas, who had been a lieutenant, as the interim chief.

On Tuesday, Hempel declined to comment on the memo, saying he had work to do and that it would speak for itself.

City Manager Jerry Mudd would not speak specifically about any of the allegations in the memo.

"When you're city manager, you have to accept the fact that there will be criticism, but as Harry Truman once said, "The buck stops here,' " Mudd said. "I'm going to make the tough, hard decisions whenever they're required."

Mudd said he had referred the memo to the police department, where the interim chief would deal with it. Thomas said she had not finished studying the memo.

"Whatever is done will be in the best interest of the department," she said. "There are several concerns that I need to look at."

Milchan praised Hempel's memo. "Everything in there is the absolute truth, from what I understand," he said.

Hempel said he broke his silence because the department was being damaged by allegations of sexual, age and race discrimination and harassment that were going unanswered.

"It is obvious my decision to remain silent was a mistake," Hempel wrote. "The damage to this Police Department has been done, and nothing in the near future will fix it."

Hempel detailed his 18 years' police experience, education and training, including a master's degree in public administration, the FBI National Academy and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's chief executive seminar.

He criticized Mudd for not consulting him before making decisions based on the allegations that some officers made about the department.

"It seems none of this experience, none of this professional education in law enforcement management had any weight at all when decisions were made by City Hall leadership about some of the issues that were being evaluated by them," Hempel wrote.

He added, "More importantly, not once was I or any of the other managers consulted on the allegations being bantered around internally and publicly."

Among Mudd's recent actions was a decision to suspend Milchan without pay and to give him five days to explain why he should not be fired. Mudd accused Milchan of threatening him with a lawsuit and waving a finger in the city manager's face.

Milchan denied the charges but resigned.

Mudd's next decision was to appoint Thomas, then a lieutenant, as acting chief, then interim chief. In doing so, he passed over Hempel and Capt. Mike Vetter, both of whom outranked Thomas.

Hempel had harsh words not only for Mudd, but for others he saw as damaging to the department.

Among Hempel's allegations:

Charles Prichard was one of two male officers to file a union grievance alleging he was a victim on a "hit list" of officers targeted for firing based on age and willingness to speak out. According to Hempel, Prichard has repeatedly shown "poor judgment" as a police officer, most notably when he took home some photographs of an autopsy. Prichard's son found them and took them to school. The family of the person in the photos later sued the city.

"The fact is we wanted to fire Prichard for gross incompetence, but City Hall overruled it," Hempel wrote.

"He is dangerous, not just my opinion, it is shared by every member of this Police Department with the exception of six other officers who have formed an alliance to destroy the Milchan Administration," Hempel wrote. "This is all revenge. That's what this entire thing is about and why you people cannot see that is beyond me."

Prichard said he was caught off-guard by Hempel's accusations.

"I just can't believe he could say such absurd stuff," Prichard said.

If people have questions about what he did as an officer, Prichard suggested they pull the file and see the truth.

Prichard's wife, Debbie, has been an outspoken critic of the Police Department. She has written letters to the editor and has charged that harassment of officers extends to their spouses. She has also called for change in the department.

"What does she know? What background does she have to even make such a statement?" Hempel asked in his memo. He said that her criticisms are "revenge minded" and stem from the disciplinary action the department took against her husband because of the autopsy photos.

"I have more class than to lower myself to Capt. Hempel's level and make baseless accusations against someone's character," Mrs. Prichard said. "At the proper time, the truth will come out."

Officer Craig Heneveld was selected Police Officer of the Year in January. He has never publicly commented about any ill treatment in the department.

Hempel brought Heneveld's name up, however, charging that he created the allegations of a "hit list."

"This entire mess stems from one officer, Craig Heneveld, who was angry toward me because I rotated him from his position and Planning and Research Office," Hempel wrote.

"It is that simple," Hempel added. "He twisted a conversation to create an illusion that we wanted to fire chosen police officers. What rubbish!"

Hempel's decision to remove Heneveld from his position and put him back on patrol resulted after he "failed to listen to me on several occasions where I was directing him to stop being critical of a few sergeants and FTOs (field training officers)."

"His motive was because his wife, a former police officer, could not complete our FTO program and was deemed unsuitable for police work," Hempel wrote.

Heneveld declined to comment because he had not seen the entire memo.

Hempel said that the department has good leadership.

"Instead, rather than examine the facts, the leadership at City Hall opted to listen to a few officers and make far-reaching conclusions without any evidence to support them," Hempel wrote.

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