KENNETH CITY — Last year, this town's police department was embroiled in turmoil that pitted officers, council members and residents against each other.
But now, three months after he took office, the new police chief says the department is on a solid track to better serve businesses and residents.
"There just seemed like there was a lack of direction. Everyone was doing their own thing," police Chief Mike Rossi said in describing the situation he found in the department. "The public didn't have a lot of faith in the department" and officers were frequently referred to as the "Keystone Cops.''
Now, Rossi said, he has made the first of many changes to allow officers to focus on their jobs rather than worry about town politics.
Among the changes:
• Improved training.
Officers, for example, have just finished learning how to use the same computer program as the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for reports. In the past, sheriff's employees have taken information from the Kenneth City officers and put it into the system at a cost of $5.50 per report, or between $500 and $1,000 a month. The training was free, Rossi said, and the savings will add up.
In another case, Rossi said, officers were handwriting reports about traffic crashes. Rossi said the state issued its own report saying Kenneth City cops were at "zero percent" in turning in those reports on time.
"That's unacceptable," Rossi said. "We need to be 100 percent."
Officers have recently undergone training and the department's computer software has been updated so traffic crash reports are able to be filed straight into the system, he said.
• Creation of a reserve force.
A reserve force is staffed by police officers, many of them retired, who must work a certain amount to keep up their certifications. Kenneth City must pay for uniforms and equipment, but not salaries, because it is a volunteer position.
"They'll do everything an officer can do," Rossi said. "They just don't get a paycheck."
• Updating policies and procedures and providing new marching orders to officers.
Rossi said he has told his officers that he wants them to get out of their cruisers, go into businesses and talk to owners, stop to chat with residents and put names to the faces they see. It's all part of community policing and making sure officers are visible and communicating with the people they serve.
• Working more closely with the community to solve problems.
Rossi said the department was approached by Dixie Hollins High School about safety issues. Dixie is in an unincorporated area, but 62nd Street N, which runs on the eastern border of the school, is in the town. Drivers were not stopping for kids in crosswalks and parents were stopping in the middle of the street to let their kids out.
Both the school and Kenneth City embarked on an information campaign to promote safer driving. For the first two weeks, Kenneth City issued warnings for violations. Since then, they've been issuing tickets. In the first four weeks, the town issued 10 oral warnings, eight written warnings and four citations.
Kenneth City Council member Troy Campbell, who oversees the police department, said he's pleased by what he has seen so far.
"He's enacting a lot of policies that should have been in place," Campbell said. "I think it has a long way to go. … We want to heal the community but we have to prove to the community that we're here for them."
The Kenneth City department has had a tumultuous history. Most recently, a sheriff's investigation cited problems with poor leadership, among other problems. But many residents refused to believe the findings.
Rossi said he only glanced at the sheriff's report after he had taken over, but, from what he found when he arrived, he was not surprised by the sheriff's conclusions.
Rossi agreed he's met with skepticism from some residents who were fans of the former chief. Rossi said he asks them not to dwell on the past but to look at the positives that are happening in the department. As for the future, the message to business owners and residents is the same one he gave to his officers:
"Don't listen to me. Watch me. Watch what I'm going to do."
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.