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Discord divides ranks of Bay Pines VA police

ST. PETERSBURG — An "Oath of Honor" poster in the police office of the Bay Pines VA Medical Center had been defaced by someone in the department.

So police Sgt. Thomas Horton, a shift supervisor, sent an e-mail to everyone in the office.

"There are some of you," Horton said in a Friday night missive, "that should not even be wearing the badge."

It only got worse from there.

Horton's blistering e-mail provides a glimpse of ongoing division in the 54-person Bay Pines police office. Bay Pines police Chief Robert Shogren said the division is an outgrowth of differing philosophies on policing.

One group of officers wants to strictly enforce the law, he said. The chief said he wants officers to be gentler and less overbearing with veterans.

"Unfortunately, I still have a few officers who don't buy into the new program," Shogren said.

He said his 30 sworn officers still do excellent police work at Bay Pines, the fifth-busiest veterans hospital in the nation.

But Horton, who formerly worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs police department in Little Rock, Ark., was less generous.

"I thought police officers I worked with in Little Rock were a mess," Horton's e-mail said. "But I have never worked with more people that think they are 'above the law' than I have here.

"We have staff that could not write a proper … incident report if their job depended on it and fight every effort to … improve.

"I have never seen the likes of employees that don't want to come to work, that don't want to do their job, that use bully police tactics and … make arrests that are on the verge of criminal," Horton said.

"… Be warned … some of us in the department … are going to see that it becomes more professional whether you like it or not."

Horton declined a request for comment on Monday. But Shogren said Horton might have benefited by following the chief's simple policy with e-mail:

Don't hit the "send" button when you're fuming.

"He could have stated it better than the way he did," the chief said.

The Bay Pines police force has endured its share of controversy in the past several years.

In 2009, a Bay Pines officer was accused of assaulting another cop in the office.

Then in 2010, a group of Bay Pines officers filed a federal suit against the VA accusing the agency of retaliating against them after they filed workplace discrimination complaints.

Joe Magri, the attorney representing those officers, could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Shogren, a 23-year VA employee, took over as chief at Bay Pines three years ago.

He said one of his most important tasks was to teach officers to be less gung-ho in relations with patients and visitors to the 300-acre Bay Pines campus.

Patients complained of verbal abuse by police or said officers were sometimes overbearing or discourteous, Shogren said.

He said he tried to make clear that a VA facility had different goals than an urban police department.

"We want to create an environment where veterans feel comfortable and safe," the chief said.

Before he took over, officers rarely walked inside buildings and interacted with veterans and staff members, Shogren said.

Officers spent too much time, the chief said, on traffic enforcement.

He said he tried to get officers to understand that patients were at Bay Pines for treatment.

That might mean not arresting an unruly veteran seeking treatment for mental health issues. An arrest, he said, puts the veteran further from treatment.

"Our goals have to be the same goals as the medical center's," Shogren said. "My philosophy is that an arrest is a last resort."

The chief said some officers come to the VA from traditional urban police agencies where a gung-ho attitude is common.

"That's not to say they're bad officers," Shogren said. "In other police agencies, these guys would be super troops."

But what is proper in a community may not be proper in a medical facility, he said.

"It's a slow process," Shogren said. "It's a culture change."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Discord divides ranks of Bay Pines VA police 05/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 16, 2011 10:04pm]
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