TARPON SPRINGS — Sometimes, a dog toy is just a dog toy.
That seems to be the lesson of a recently concluded Tarpon Springs Police Department internal investigation that exonerated former canine officer Steven Bergren following a damaging set of accusations related to photographs that he posted online.
Dogs, photos and controversy do not typically add up to happy headlines for people in the law enforcement business, especially when the Internet is involved. Things did not look good for Bergren in September, when allegations surfaced that he had posted pictures on his Facebook page with sexual and racist connotations.
In one photo, Bergren holds a long, flesh-colored cylinder in front of the mouth of his four-legged partner, Dobies Junior. The officer had also posted an iconic 1963 photograph of an African-American high school student being attacked by a police dog at a civil-rights demonstration in Birmingham, Ala.
A local television news reporter aired a spot proclaiming that the first photograph captured what "appears to be a sex toy coming out of the crotch of Tarpon Springs canine officer Steven Bergren and placed into his dog's mouth," leading to a police probe.
But according to the facts unearthed in that inquiry, things were not what they seemed.
The photograph, it turned out, had been taken at a community event that the Police Department held at a grocery store. The "sex toy" was the dog's training toy, and it was not being stuck in the dog's mouth from the direction of Bergren's crotch, according to the department's internal investigation.
The professional photographer who took the photo was called in to analyze it. He told internal investigators that it was an action shot that had captured Bergren's arm in motion as he threw the toy for Dobies Junior.
"The instant the picture is taken, it actually appears that he's holding the baton in front of his — his crotch for the dog to bite at, but that's not what's taking place," photographer Darryl Chandler said, according to a transcript of his interview with an investigator. "His hand is actually making a slinging motion and a release motion. It just happens to be where it is."
The chew toy had in fact already left Bergren's hand at the time the photo was shot, Chandler said.
Answers about Bergren's interest in the Birmingham photo are less clear cut. Tarpon Springs police Capt. Barb Templeton said Bergren collects historical images of law enforcement officers, and claimed he was not aware of the sensitive nature of the famous black-and-white photograph, which galvanized desegregation activists after it was published in 1963 in the New York Times.
She said a review of all his arrests since he began working in Tarpon Springs did not indicate any pattern of racial discrimination, and that no complaints about discrimination had ever been lodged against the 30-year-old Bergren.
"He has photos of all types of police actions," Templeton said. "He didn't live during that period, and didn't really realize the impact (the photo) would have. Believe me, he does now."
In the end, the internal investigation found that Bergren had done only one thing wrong: he spoke to the media without authorization.
In a phone conversation with WTSP-10 TV newsman Mike Deeson, who aired the report about the photos, Bergren denied that there was anything inappropriate about the shot of himself and Dobies Junior.
Bergren told Templeton that Deeson was "aggressive" on the phone and "said that he was calling in reference to Bergren's dog 'chewing on a dildo.'"
Tarpon Springs Police Chief Robert Kochen expressed regret the TV report had aired in the first place. Bergren, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who began working as a canine officer in May, was "devastated" by the TV news coverage, Kochen said.
Bergren did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
While the internal investigation essentially cleared Bergren's name, he will no longer be doing police work with Dobies Junior.
Bergren has been reassigned to a standard patrol job, Kochen said. He declined to go into the specifics of the reassignment, but said it did not have to do with the internal investigation.
"We felt it was in the best interests of him and the department to move forward with another officer" working with the dog, Kochen said.
Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.