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Last call for St. Pete Beach Police Department

ST. PETE BEACH

It was 4 a.m. on Sunday when a wobbly young man lashed out at his girlfriend in a parking lot and then stalked off down the street. "Don't come back here ever!" he called to the gathering of St. Pete Beach Police Department officers who had arrived at the scene. "Don't worry, we won't," Officer Tim Skeper said quietly. On any other night the young man would have been another drunken person with poor romantic prospects, but in Sunday's predawn, his prophetic words stung. In three hours, the St. Pete Beach Police Department would cease to exist.

One by one, the four officers on duty for the midnight shift would step forward, hand their radios and Tasers to a lieutenant from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, and clean out their lockers.

On Monday morning they would report to the Sheriff's Office for work. Shirts, ties, jackets, they were instructed. Their guns they would keep, but only until the sheriff gave them .45-caliber Glocks, standard issue for his deputies.

• • •

For more than 50 years, the St. Pete Beach Police Department has patrolled this city of about 10,000. But in the years after the housing bubble burst, declining property values and lower tax revenues led city commissioners to consider disbanding the police force.

Though small towns all over the country have had to make similar decisions, shuttering a police department is not like bringing in a private waste management company or closing public pools. Because the duty to protect their citizenry is at the core of most towns' identities, losing a local police force in favor of law enforcement from the county can fuel something of an existential crisis.

But keeping one comes at a price. Last year, it cost St. Pete Beach $4.56 million to run the Police Department, about 30 percent of the city's overall budget. It just finished paying the $2.1 million construction bill for the police station, which opened in 1995 and has a color scheme out of SeaWorld.

Last year, after being forced to accept unwelcome changes to their pension plan, a slim majority of officers supported shutting down the department. With voters' approval, the city would contract out law enforcement to the sheriff, saving about $1.3 million a year. In turn, the sheriff would offer jobs to the 26 St. Pete Beach police officers, dispatchers, and administrative staff. On Nov. 6, 58 percent of voters backed the change.

The vote brought finality, but not closure. Inside the department, officers who supported the switch and those who didn't picked fights with each other. The sense of camaraderie that brought many of them to St. Pete Beach in the first place began to evaporate while, outside the police station walls, bad blood between officers and City Hall reached a boiling point.

"The city hasn't said goodbye," said Sgt. Scott Collins, who joined the department nine years ago after two years of working for the sheriff.

"We didn't get any emails saying thanks for your service,'' he said. "It's been bad back-and-forth between us."

• • •

The chief of the St. Pete Beach Police Department, David Romine, retired on Jan. 4, checking out before the last shift. That made Collins the senior member of the force for its final 10 hours, a last-minute promotion before he becomes a deputy and loses the three sergeant stripes on his uniform.

It was a typical night. First came a call from the Wharf, a salty seafood restaurant and bar on Pass-a-Grille Way where, according to the arrest report, two roommates started to fight after one accidentally ripped the other's shirt. Irate and drunk, Conor Sullivan brought a beer glass crashing down onto Carl Oley's head, breaking the glass and leaving Oley with a 2- to 3-inch gash.

His head wrapped in gauze and his shirt soaked with blood, Oley sat outside the Wharf repeating, "There is blood everywhere" like an incantation. Sullivan, waiting to be hauled away on a felony charge, looked contrite.

Not long after, at 12:45 a.m., the Postcard Inn reported a domestic disturbance in Room 140. A young woman there told the officers she and her boyfriend had gone to dinner and returned to their room, where he saw a text message from a male friend on her phone. He grabbed her by the neck and threw her to the ground, then went outside to smoke a cigarette and put his fist through the window.

Collins describes crime in St. Pete Beach this way: "We have everything, but less of everything."

Some nights, there is not a single call. One night, two men armed with a semiautomatic handgun held up a Crabby Bill's restaurant employee, bound his hands, and shoved him in the trunk of a car. (It ended well. Collins chased one of the men into the Intracoastal Waterway, where he surrendered in embarrassingly shallow water.)

In the first six months of 2012, a total of 219 people were arrested in St. Pete Beach. There were four robberies, 16 aggravated assaults, and 29 burglaries. Three cars were reported stolen. No one was murdered. No one has been murdered in St. Pete Beach in more than two decades.

As he maneuvered his SUV through the town's residential streets, Officer Wayne Zelinsky tuned into the sheriff's radio frequency, which popped with calls all night long. The radio in his ear was set to St. Pete Beach, where he began working a year and a half ago.

When the City Commission started talking about shutting down the Police Department, Zelinsky didn't take it seriously at first.

"I thought, there's no way," he said. "It's a small community, it's a very wealthy community, and there's no way they'll give up their police."

Even now, when it's clear they will, Zelinsky said he doesn't think residents realize that the department will be gone, the police station closed.

Kacy Carragher, a store assistant at Circle K, has resigned herself to their leaving. She wrote goodbye letters to the four midnight shift officers and, with less than an hour to go until 7 a.m., the end of their shift, all of them stopped by for a last hug.

• • •

Shortly after 6 a.m., the four line up at First Avenue and Pass-a-Grille Way, mile marker zero.

A woman in gold running shoes jogs up to them in the dark. "Couldn't be prouder," she says.

At 6:14 a.m., Collins turns on his lights and sirens and all four SUVs begin a somber procession up Pass-a-Grille Way. They pass Circle K, where Carragher and others stand outside and cheer; they pass MJ's Watering Hole, the town's unofficial cop bar, they pass a sheriff deputy's car. They are grateful to have jobs; they are unconvinced things had to turn out this way.

Outside the station, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and St. Pete Beach Mayor Steve McFarlin are talking to a television reporter.

Inside, dispatcher Kathy Wight performs the last rites. Protocol dictates that when a police officer is dies, the dispatcher reads the code for "out of service" over the scanner.

Just after 7 a.m., Wight gets on the radio.

"St. Pete Beach is 10-7," she says. She puts the microphone down. "I've never had a department die," she says. "Just officers."

Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or aphillips@tampabay.com.

Last call for St. Pete Beach Police Department 01/08/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 5:38pm]

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