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Largo refuses, then agrees, to pay lifesaving officer for his ruined cellphone

LARGO — On March 8, Officer Mike Eaton found a 3-year-old boy at the bottom of a pool.

The boy's parents had reported him missing and said they had checked their pool. He was in there, though, when Eaton arrived, and the officer quickly removed his gun belt and radio and dove in.

The boy survived. Eaton tore a rotator cuff during the rescue, and he destroyed his $200 personal cellphone, which was in his pocket.

Eaton asked the city to pay for it. However, the police union's agreement with the city calls for a maximum $50 reimbursement for personal items such as cellphones damaged during work. Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert wouldn't budge, despite union representative Michael Krohn's repeated requests for an exception to the rule.

"They waste a lot more than $200 elsewhere for more unimportant things than this," said Krohn, executive director of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association. "If this officer would have waited a few more seconds to empty his pockets, this child could be dead."

Schubert said he felt making an exception to the $50 rule would set a precedent.

"You've got to draw the line somewhere," he said. "Once you reimburse one person above the amount, then there's going to be an expectation that you do that for other people as well."

When Krohn first emailed Schubert March 19 to ask the city to reimburse Eaton, he wrote that the union would view it as "a one-time occurrence, and shall not be binding on the city in future situations as precedent."

Schubert didn't reply to that email, so Krohn emailed him again on March 28. This time Schubert did reply.

"I very much appreciate and applaud the actions of Officer Eaton. His actions are a credit to himself, the Largo Police Department, and his profession," wrote Schubert, who then cited the contract's $50 rule.

Schubert then tried to shift responsibility for the decision to police Chief John Carroll.

"The Chief has made the decision to not reimburse for this loss. I will not overrule the Chief on this issue," Schubert wrote.

Carroll quickly corrected Schubert with an email saying that according to the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the city, he only had the ability to reimburse his officers $50.

"If I have discretion beyond that amount I will exercise it, but I am not finding it," Carroll wrote.

Schubert replied that no, Carroll didn't have the discretion to give Eaton more than $50.

"I do not believe that I do either," Schubert wrote. "I support your decision and will not support additional reimbursement."

That decision didn't sit well with Commissioner Curtis Holmes, who heard about it when television station Fox 13 aired a story Friday evening. Holmes contacted the station to say he would pay Eaton the $200 for his phone.

"I was outraged," Holmes said.

Holmes will not end up having to pay for Eaton's phone, though, and neither will Eaton. City Manager Mac Craig decided this week to use his city expense account to cover Eaton's phone, according to Schubert.

"Henry (Schubert) was doing things right by the contract … but it just wasn't the right thing to do," Holmes said. "This Officer Eaton ought to be put up for an award."

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Largo refuses, then agrees, to pay lifesaving officer for his ruined cellphone 04/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 4:44pm]
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