KENNETH CITY — Police Chief Mike Rossi wants to expand his 12-member force by adding a four-legged officer.
Rossi is asking the Town Council for permission to create one canine unit for the town. It's a move that's necessary, he said, because the Pinellas County Sheriff's canine unit is not always available or quick enough to satisfy the town's requests for service because "that's a long distance for them to travel." As an added bonus, the chief said, the dog will provide good publicity for the town and be available to help out the sheriff in the unincorporated Lealman area that abuts Kenneth City's eastern and western borders.
"I'm sure there's going to be more times the Sheriff's Office will be utilizing us in the Lealman area, calling us to assist them, than we're going to probably have ever used them," Rossi told council members during a workshop last month. "We're going to be able to help others out."
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Rossi's wrong on several counts.
"I don't see it that way," Gualtieri said about relying on Kenneth City police for help.
As for traveling distance, Gualtieri said he not only has a full contingent of deputies assigned to Lealman, several of his canine teams are also assigned there. The sheriff has a 12-member (dog and handler) canine unit. At the moment, the unit is down to 11 because of the retirement of one deputy. The dogs in those Lealman teams — like the Sheriff's Department's other dogs — are dual trained, meaning they can do more than one task — sniff for drugs, sniff for bombs and/or track suspects.
And, because Kenneth City is in the center of Lealman, there's no evident need.
"We're right there," Gualtieri said. "We're through there all the time."
Gualtieri conceded, however, that a sheriff's dog might be unavailable if a higher priority call came in at the same time. But that goes both ways, he said. A dog might be unavailable to the county if Kenneth City had a higher priority call. And, if the Sheriff's Department's dogs are unavailable, the town could always call St. Petersburg or Pinellas Park for help. Both cities have canine units.
If a canine unit is warranted, one will be available, Gualtieri said.
It's unclear how many times the town has requested the dog unit. Neither the sheriff nor the town keeps such records. Because of that lack, Gualtieri suggested the town might want to see if the need really exists by taking 90 days to track of the number of times Kenneth City officers call for a canine unit, under what circumstances, and the result.
Rossi said he doesn't think that's needed because the dog will cost Kenneth City residents nothing. The dog and all its connected costs, such as training, food, vet care, bulletproof vests, are being paid by donations from local businesses.
Kenneth City Mayor Teresa Zemaitis has doubts about the message the department is sending. Noting that Rossi has asked to purchase such things as ballistic vests and high-powered weapons, she said that the department's image is becoming one that's more militaristic. Kenneth City, she said, already has a problem with its image of a speed trap and this could make things worse.
What does Kenneth City want to convey? Zemaitis said ". . . that's something we should talk about. What do we want the image to be?" she said. "I don't want to live in a police state either, and have people fear us."
But council member Phil Redisch said he likes the tougher image: "I think it's a positive for the city and a way of chasing people away and I'm talking about chasing the bad guys away."
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.