It's a badge & boredom in Belleair
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000
BELLEAIR -- No police call goes ignored in this exclusive community, where officers enjoy wall-to-wall affection.
A woman complains a neighbor's dog pooped in her yard, and a member of the Belleair PD hurries right out. A newspaper is not delivered, and two officers -- lieutenants, no less -- are dispatched.
But a look inside this 11-member department reveals a small-town police force plagued by embarrassing episodes, amateur antics and swelling tensions among the top brass that belie the cap-tipping friendliness shown to Belleair residents.
On Wednesday, town officials called in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate a host of problems, including a suspicion the department's high-ranking officers have afforded preferential treatment to some well-connected residents.
A Times review of Belleair police department found:
Traffic tickets might have been "taken care of" for certain residents by high-ranking department officials. The chief, George Harmansky, who took command in July, is so concerned he personally reviews the department's activity logs daily looking for red flags.
In August 1999, veteran officer Jeff Clark was removed from duty and sent to psychological counseling after colleagues heard him talk about "going postal" and wanting to bring a gun to a town picnic and shoot everyone. A doctor later cleared Clark to return to duty, and Harmansky now says he is a good officer.
But that incident spawned deeper problems. Clark said he made those statements while under extreme stress stemming in part from a turbulent relationship with a female officer who made sexual advances at work. "Sexual comments, innuendos every day, every day," Clark said. The FDLE will be asked to determine whether Clark was sexually harassed, town leaders said this week.
The female officer, Marlene Toledo, now a lieutenant, says she and Clark were friends just joking around. She described the department's atmosphere as one where "everyone makes jokes but everybody does it to each other," she said. "It's not a sexual harassment thing.'"
That permissive culture played out in scandal last year. A female dispatcher, 24, made photocopies of her body parts on a town copier to give to a married officer with whom she was having an affair, officials say.
And Lt. Toledo has other troubles. Officials say on dozens of occasions she took her boyfriend around in her cruiser while on duty. She also is suspected of using her cruiser for personal business. And, in September she racked up a $512.98 bill on a city cell phone, stunning her bosses. Toledo is fighting the claims and has hired a lawyer.
The department's other lieutenant, Chester Kowalski, is being forced out because, the chief says, he no longer can be trusted after failing to keep confidential a sensitive personnel matter discussed among managers.
And then there is the small stuff.
For years, it appears, no one kept track of the department's guns. "Nobody knew where they had anything or who had what," Harmansky said.
Half the town's cruisers didn't have basic necessities such as first-aid kits. One of the first-aid kits that was in a cruiser was rusted shut. And fearing that officers haven't been CPR recertified, Harmansky scheduled training for the department.
Town leaders admit it all looks bad.
"Shameful," Harmansky said. "I haven't slept since. It's not what I want to see in an organization. It's not what the town wants in an organization. It's nothing I want to be associated with in an organization.'
Harmansky and Town Manager Steve Cottrell want the FDLE to help fix the mess.
"I want them to do a clean sweep, get rid of those who we can get rid of and get some new blood in there that's professional," Cottrell said. "I hope we can clean up the department."
FDLE spokesman Rick Morera said Thursday that officials there will evaluate Belleair's request to determine whether FDLE is the appropriate agency to help.
George Harmansky, 48, replaced Michael Egger this summer with the understanding the Belleair police was seeking state accreditation, a distinction for any department. To Harmansky, who came from Lebanon, Ky., that indicated "things are in order."
But soon he started hearing of problems.
Such as preferential treatment granted certain residents. Sources whispered that traffic citations issued on the street by officers would be torn up at headquarters. "Someone calls the person and says: "Don't worry about it. It's taken care of,' " Harmansky said.
Since August, he has checked every day to make sure nothing like that occurs.
"We have a new philosophy on enforcement," said Harmansky. "We do it fairly and consistently. I think that's a little different (from previous years)."
He also heard troubling allegations regarding Lt. Toledo, who for years has been a respected officer.
Taking her boyfriend on ride-alongs tops the list. Harmansky believes it has happened dozens of times. But Toledo says just two or three times.
Harmansky said he hears she drove her cruiser to her second job, a violation of policy. Not true, she says.
"It was all pre-approved," Toledo said. "I know the allegations they've made. They don't have anything. It's not true."
As for the whopping cell phone bill, she said the calls mostly were work-related. The chief scoffs, noting she was off 12 days in the 30-day billing period. But Toledo isn't fighting this one. She plans to reimburse the town.
Of the allegations about her and Officer Clark, she said the two simply were "extremely close friends" and that she did nothing inappropriate.
Clark, for his part, regrets his threatening comments. "I lost my temper. I said stupid things I shouldn't have said."
Toledo said she thinks she is being targeted because years ago she suggested members of the force join the Fraternal Order of Police, a union.
"They're using this as an excuse because they don't like the way I've been boisterous," Toledo said. "At first I thought it was out of paranoia, but now I know it's not. They're trying to push me out."
What to do about Toledo was the subject of a September meeting between Harmansky, Cottrell, Assistant City Manager Jon Lewis and the department's other ranking officer, Lt. Kowalski. After the meeting, Kowalski told Toledo that town management "had it in for her and were going to fire her," Cottrell said. He was told to be out by Dec. 1.
"This lieutenant violated what I consider to be an essential ingredient of management -- that is confidentiality among managers," Cottrell said.
Cottrell believes that is what prompted Toledo to hire lawyer Robert G. Walker, who recently presented the city with a hefty public records request related to the department's policies and treatment of Toledo.
But Kowalski says he never disclosed management discussions, and Toledo backs him up. Toledo decided to hire a lawyer, she said, after talking with a union official. The town, she said, is punishing Kowalski for being her friend.
"I did not breach any confidentiality," Kowalski said. "It's totally untrue and an out-and-out lie.'
On top of the these personnel problems, the department apparently let a lot of important work slide over the years.
When Harmansky inquired about getting a gun for himself, he discovered no inventory of the department's weapons. Now complete, an inventory shows the department has about a dozen more guns than it needs, many no longer used by the officers.
"I said, "What are we doing with all this? Some of this stuff is ancient,' " Harmansky said.
He also discovered officers' personnel files scattered throughout city offices in confusing disarray. The records are being consolidated.
'The devil's workshop'
It's a weekday afternoon, 16:20 hours to be exact, and all is quiet at the Belleair dispatch center, where dispatchers also issue keys to the town's tennis courts and permits for yard sales.
A call finally comes in at 17:00 hours. Dispatcher John Baumgardner chuckles into the receiver. The call is for him.
"My phone hasn't rung in the 35 minutes I've been here talking to her (a Times reporter), and my first phone call is personal," he says to the caller.
Fifteen minutes later Officer Anthony Portman wanders in and asks Baumgardner if he wants to "10-58." (Translation: eat dinner)
They decide to wait a while. Portman, a muscular 24-year-old sporting flashy shades, heads back out on the road.
"He wants to get something going," Baumgardner says. "He's bored. I've about burned all his detail options."
At 17:18 hours, Portman radios into the dispatch center. A woman is driving down Belleview Boulevard with an improperly displayed tag. Portman gives her a warning.
"Improperly displayed tag . . . that's damn near criminal," Baumgardner jokes as he types the information into his computer.
Not enough to do, officials say, is a major issue for the 10 officers of the Belleair Police Department whose salaries range from $27,000 to Kowalksi's $46,000. Officers proudly point out there is little crime in the town, which is just two square miles, half of which is golf courses. The officers say the puny crime stats are a credit to their effectiveness. It also means they do myriad other tasks, like code enforcement.
In the past year, officers wrote three times more citations for lawn-watering violations than they made arrests for felonies and misdemeanors combined.
Cottrell believes boredom might explain some of the troubles.
"The boredom is one of the most serious problems as an agency," Cottrell said. He added: "An idle mind is the devil's workshop, as we have become painfully aware."
Take the incident with the dispatcher, which happened under the watch of former Chief Egger, who did not return repeated calls seeking comment. The photocopies circulated throughout the department before the dispatcher was forced to resign in July 1999, Cottrell said. The officer for whom she made the photocopies left the department for a new job before action could be taken against him.
The problems with Belleair's police have raised the inevitable question: Should such a small town even have a police department?
Belleair's PD costs the town nearly $1-million a year. That's too much, Town Commissioner Tom Murrin says. He proposes dissolving the force, as other cities have done, and hiring the sheriff to provide police protection.
But to Mayor George Mariani, the department's dirty laundry is no worse than any other police agency's. The officers generally do a laudable job, he said.
"People make mistakes," Mariani said. "Because I personally deserve to be fired or disciplined doesn't make the institution as a whole bad."
Thirty-two-year resident Sherrie Morton, president of the Belleair Civic Association, is one of the department's many fans. "I think they are caring. I think they are responsive," she said. "If you need help, they are going to be there in a minute. You are not going to get that from the sheriff."
Officers like Terri Pettay, a 15-year veteran, said the problems are not representative of the good community policing that goes on in Belleair every day.
Her work might not be "Dukes of Hazzard" shoot-em-up gang busters, but that's not Belleair.
"I've answered calls where people can't get their garage door opened or closed," Pettay said. "I'm there to serve. Service comes in many different forms."
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