CLEARWATER — The four contenders to be Clearwater's next police chief have nearly 100 years of law enforcement experience among them.
They all started as patrol cops and worked their way up through the ranks. They've tackled just about every job you can do in a police department.
Now the four finalists — Gene Bernal, Tony Holloway, John Jackson and Thomas Lawrence — are coming to town. The public will get a chance to ask them questions at a forum Tuesday at the Harborview Center.
It will start about 6 p.m. Attendees will sit in four separate rooms. The candidates will rotate through the rooms, doing a 30-minute question-and-answer session with each group. People will be asked to write down their thoughts about each of them.
A rundown on the contenders follows.
Eugenio "Gene" Bernal
A deputy chief in Orlando, he's bilingual and is the Orlando department's point man on Hispanic issues. He has been a traffic cop, gang unit sergeant, hostage negotiator, bicycle officer and SWAT team member, among other things.
"I'm getting to the end of my career here, but I have a very young family and I'm looking for my next career," said Bernal, 49. He's locked into retiring from Orlando after 28 years due to the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program. He has a wife and three young children.
"Clearwater is similar to Orlando — you've got upper-middle-class neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, minority neighborhoods," he said. "You cannot police every neighborhood the same. Each one has unique circumstances that we need to deal with."
He runs Orlando's special services bureau — traffic officers, airport police, community relations and basically everyone other than patrol cops and detectives. He says he has been learning creative ways to cut his budget without laying off officers.
He started out as a Clearwater patrol officer in 1986. He worked in Countryside and Clearwater Beach, but began to make his mark by fighting drugs in North Greenwood.
During the crack cocaine boom of the late 1980s, North Greenwood residents complained that police were arresting dealers but not the buyers who were driving into their neighborhood. So Holloway worked undercover, selling crack on street corners. Neighbors set up lawn chairs and watched him work. "It was crazy," he said.
Clearwater's longtime police chief, Sid Klein, saw potential in Holloway and pushed him to go back to school for his bachelor's and master's degrees. He assigned Holloway to work on budgets and other administrative tasks to broaden his understanding of police work.
Holloway became Clearwater's first black police captain, then left in 2007 to become police chief in Somerville, Mass., an ethnically diverse city of 77,000 outside Boston (compared with Clearwater's 108,000).
Holloway, 47, is married to Clearwater lawyer Andra Dreyfus. They have no children. She remained here after Holloway moved up north, and they make a lot of weekend visits.
John A. Jackson
For the past two years, he has been police chief in Alamosa, Colo., a small tourist town with an elevation of 7,500 feet, a population of nearly 9,000, and 24 police officers. He doesn't think the Clearwater job would be too big of a leap.
"If I do my job right, I'm not managing the whole department. The commissioner of the New York Police Department doesn't manage all 25,000 officers himself," said Jackson, 44, who has a wife and two teenaged sons. "And being a chief in a small town, you have to wear more hats."
Before Alamosa, he spent the bulk of his two-decade career in Overland Park, Kan., an affluent Kansas City suburb that's larger than Clearwater. He says he has used that experience to modernize Alamosa's police force, upgrading its computers, training and public outreach.
Jackson said he was drawn to this opportunity because of Clearwater's reputation for community policing: "It's a philosophy of connecting the police department with the community. A soup kitchen, beach merchants and downtown businesses are going to have different needs and desires. You have to create partnerships with them."
A deputy chief in Dallas, he's done a wide variety of jobs over his 26-year career there — patrol commander, SWAT team, homeland security among them. But he's perhaps best known for spearheading a project to install scores of surveillance cameras to monitor Dallas' downtown.
"For good or for bad, I've been tagged as the camera czar for the city of Dallas," he said. Although some have raised privacy concerns, Lawrence notes that the cameras aren't covert and are clearly marked. They're credited for hundreds of arrests for everything from public disorder to assault to breaking into cars. And doing this kind of thing in Clearwater would be the City Council's decision.
As a deputy chief, he enjoys interacting with the broader community beyond the Police Department. He talks of bringing new ideas and fresh eyes.
"I'm more of a leader than I am a manager. I like being out in the community, out with the officers," said Lawrence, 50, who's divorced and has two grown daughters. "I may not be the guy who can pinch pennies real well."
What comes next
The four finalists will meet one-on-one with City Council members. They'll talk with police union leaders and with Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne, who'll make the ultimate decision about whom to hire.
Horne expects to decide by early January. He wants the next chief in place by the time Klein retires in February.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.