NEW PORT RICHEY — Police Chief Jeffrey Harrington has determined his officers acted appropriately in their handling of protesters at a Sims Park event a few months ago.
Police officers confronted members of the American Youth Movement 22211 at the May 21 Rock the Park event, a daylong concert to benefit the Center for Independence and a local Marine who lost his legs in Afghanistan. Organizer Sean Kline had invited the group, not realizing they would show up wearing American flag bandanas on their faces and carrying protest signs that read: "Don't let crooked cops, corrupt politicians and corporations take your rights away."
After the protesters created a stir, organizers wanted them gone. Harrington said the police officers stood by as event organizers asked the youths to voluntarily leave the park.
But American Youth organizer Zachary Mitrovich said the group left due to intimidation and an officer's threat to cite them for trespassing. He believes they were ousted for their message, in violation of their rights to free speech and free assembly.
New Port Richey resident Daniel Callaghan filed the complaint that prompted Harrington's review. Callaghan was not involved in the protest, but he has experience with civil dissent, having chained himself to a road in 2004 to protest the depictions of American Indians at the Chasco Fiesta festival.
Harrington said he and the city's attorneys reviewed video taken by the youths and found no wrongdoing on the part of the officers.
"At no time did a New Port Richey officer deliver a trespass warning or enter a trespass warning into our departmental database," Harrington wrote in his findings. Witnesses reported the youths were using "vulgar language" and were "generally disruptive," but it was organizers, not the police, who asked them to leave, the chief wrote.
"Based on my review of the incident, members of the American Youth Movement were asked to leave based on their conduct, not the content of their speech or message," Harrington wrote.
Callaghan said in his review of the video he heard an officer threatening the youths with being cited for trespassing at the park.
"There are numerous questions that were simply avoided," Callaghan said of Harrington's letter.
Callaghan sent a written response to the chief and mayor questioning the ruling. Mitrovich also had choice words for the chief.
"He's either blind or a liar," Mitrovich said.