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By ERIC STIRGUS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000
LARGO -- They looked like old friends sharing war stories as they sat around two tables at the back of a room inside East Bay Country Club.
But until Thursday, these five men had never met.
They came not to socialize, but to compete. All are striving to become Largo's police chief.
The candidates were interviewed Friday by a group of high-level city officials along with a team of employees. A decision is expected to be made by February.
So who are these guys?
They're all well-educated, longtime officers who work in medium-sized agencies. They're all strong supporters of community policing, a program city officials plan to review in the coming months. And they have done their homework, reading newspaper articles about the department on the Internet, talking to friends in law enforcement about the job. Some even came here early to meet Largo officers and get a feel for the city.
The job of the new chief will be twofold: to provide a steady hand in the wake of a scandal involving the department's Explorer youth organization and to reorganize the department's community policing program. As part of the process of selecting finalists for the position, each candidate was asked to write an essay on his thoughts about community policing.
Before applying for the job, Greg Morrison called Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein. The two men go back. Morrison, 43, was in the early stages of his law enforcement career, working nights as a patrol officer in Lakewood, Colo., while Klein was deputy chief. Klein spoke highly of the Largo Police Department, Morrison said.
Morrison became police chief of Vail, Colo., a popular ski resort, in December 1995. In June, he was given the Pioneering Award by the state's police chiefs association for his efforts, including creating community policing in the 31-officer department.
Community policing has been a challenge there, said Vail police Commander Deb Annibali. While there may be days when as many as 30,000 people visit Vail, the city has a permanent population of only about 5,000 residents.
The transient nature of the city makes it difficult to establish bonds with residents, Annibali said.
If selected chief, Morrison said he will listen to officers, residents and city officials before coming forward with plans for the department.
All officers are community policing officers, he says. Brent Larrabee sees many similarities between Largo and Framingham, Mass., where he has been chief for 14 years.
About 20 miles west of Boston, the town has about 71,000 residents. Largo has an estimated 68,000 residents. The departments are similar in size: Largo has about 130 sworn officers, Framingham has 125.
"I think it's extraordinary," Larrabee, 54, said of Largo.
He joined the Framingham Police Department in 1972 as a patrol officer and has spent his entire career with the force.
Larrabee is no micromanager. He said he has had little patience for those who act in such a manner.
"You got to allow me to do it my way," Larrabee said in his strong New England accent.
Like many of the finalists, Larrabee said he allows his officers latitude to come up with creative solutions for hard problems. He doesn't like the phrase "community policing." Too often, he said, it is a catch phrase used by bureaucrats to obtain grant money.
"It's an overall philosophy of how you do your work," said Larrabee.
Paul Sireci may be more familiar with Florida than any of the finalists.
For 22 years, he worked at the Naples Police Department, where he started as an officer and became the agency's second in command.
In 1995, he left Naples to become chief of public safety for the Memphis (Tenn.) International Airport Police Department.
There, he leads a staff of 44 sworn officers and 27 other staffers.
Sireci declined to be interviewed for this article.
In a letter to Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert that accompanied his resume, Sireci said he set up community policing programs in Naples and in Memphis. Sireci also wrote of his efforts to recruit minorities to his staff in Memphis.
"I am an involved team player in my organization and in my community," he wrote.
When Chuck Grover took the job as chief of the Prairie Village, Kan., Police Department in 1991, he was asked to modernize its policies, equipment and training.
As chief, Grover said he would stress to all officers the need to build relationships with residents while on patrol.
"It's got to be more than programs," said Grover, 54. "It's got to be the officers on the street, respecting the citizens."
Grover's officers are responsible for Prairie Village and Mission Hills, two affluent suburbs of Kansas City. The department has a program similar to Largo's Explorer Post. Grover's department does not have any specific policies detailing ways to prevent inappropriate conduct between officers and young people. It is understood, he said, that such conduct is improper.
"These are ethical issues," he said. "Matters of right and wrong."
Lester Aradi became second in command of the Buffalo Grove, Ill., Police Department in 1998. A week before the interviews, Aradi, 49, came to Largo and rode along with officers who work the evening shift.
Aradi was impressed with what he saw.
The next police chief of Largo should begin his tenure by closing his mouth and opening his ears, he said.
Although city officials have discussed removing the department's requirement that all recruits have college degrees, Aradi said he would suggest officers who do not have a degree get one within a certain time.
The Buffalo Grove Police Department has a cadet program that is similar to the Explorer Post program. Aradi said such programs are great ways to work with young people interested in a career in law enforcement.
"In no way, shape or form, should the ability of a law enforcement officer working with a youth be impacted," he said.
Aradi's current boss, Leo McCann, called him a "problem-solver." He had mixed feelings about Aradi's trip to Largo.
"The professional side of me wishes he'd stay here," said McCann. "The personal side of me wishes him the best."