Friday, May 25, 2018
News Roundup

In canine dispute, sheriff rejects claims of Kenneth City police chief

KENNETH CITY — Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has called out a police chief for bad-mouthing the Sheriff's Office as a tactic to get what he wants from his Town Council.

Gualtieri referred to statements Chief Mike Rossi made in an email late last month to Kenneth City council members. Rossi claimed the Sheriff's Office was "unavailable" to provide help when police asked for it.

"As I have said many times, I do not want to be in the middle of the debates and battles in Kenneth City over its Police Department," Gualtieri wrote in his own email to Rossi and Mayor Teresa Zemaitis. Zemaitis had the email forwarded to the other four council members. "I also will not stand by and have it insinuated that PCSO was 'unavailable' when we really were not unavailable."

Gualtieri said Monday that he thought his email spoke for itself. He wrote it, he said, because he was a "little frustrated" with the depiction of the insinuation that his deputies were unavailable. Gualtieri said he didn't want information to stand that "I know is absolutely untrue. . . . To say we were unavailable, it just wasn't right."

The dispute began with a dog.

More specifically, it began with Rossi's proposal to add a canine unit to his 12-member department. The chief had no data showing how many times the department had needed a dog, or requested one from the sheriff or elsewhere, or had been refused the loan of a canine unit. Despite that lack, one of his selling points to the council was the difficulty of borrowing one of the sheriff's 12 canine units. He told the council that the sheriff's canine unit is not always available or quick enough to satisfy Kenneth City's requests for service.

Gualtieri denied Rossi's statements. He suggested the town hold off on the decision and collect data for 90 days on the number of times a police dog was needed. On Nov. 13, the Kenneth City council tabled the idea until March when the transition to a town manager form of government is complete.

But five days later, Kenneth City police received calls of several car burglaries and a report that a resident who had confronted the suspects might have been shot at. The sheriff's dispatcher told police the suspects had run away. The officers decided to track them with a police dog.

In a Nov. 22 email to the council, Rossi wrote, "The request was made for a canine from the PCSO and none was available in the south end of the county, only a north county dog."

Rossi repeated that on Thursday, saying, "We asked if they had a canine available. They said they didn't have one available."

Not so, Gualtieri said. A tape of the conversation between the Kenneth City officer and the sheriff's dispatcher shows that the only dog on duty was in North Pinellas but "the KC unit does not ask for the logged on dog to respond, (nor) does our dispatcher ask if he wants that dog."

The other dogs working that night had gone off duty, Gualtieri said. But that didn't matter: "I know that if (the deputy in north county) had been advised there was a need he would have responded. He would have been there promptly given the time of day. When there is a need for a canine, we call them out as our canine handlers live all over the county and there is always someone available."

Rossi said his officers did not want to cost the sheriff overtime. Instead, they called the St. Petersburg Police Department and borrowed one of that city's canine units. The dog tracked the suspects to an address outside Kenneth City. The suspects were later arrested in St. Petersburg.

If Kenneth City had its own police dog, things might not have been much different, Gualtieri wrote. "There is no assurance it would have been on duty and certainly one canine is not going to provide 24/7 coverage for the town. The decision whether to obtain a canine rests with the town and if the town wants one then it should proceed accordingly. However, I do not believe this example clearly depicts unavailability of PCSO resources that are available to support the town's canine needs.

"Again, it makes no difference to me whether the town obtains a canine and the town's decision should be based on what it believes its needs are. I also believe that if the town wants its own Police Department then it should fully support its chief and officers so they have the resources they need, otherwise the town should go in a different direction. If canine support from PCSO, (St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park police departments) are insufficient, then so be it, but all unavailability examples should completely depict the situation."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.

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