ST. PETERSBURG — Weeks after FBI agents arrested one of their own detectives, the St. Petersburg Police Department had to deal with more turmoil from within its own ranks on Thursday.
For the first time in his nine years as chief of police, Chuck Harmon had to suspend a member of his own command staff. And another officer resigned before he could be fired for stealing $71 from suspects.
Maj. Dave Hawkins, who is in charge of vice and narcotics, was suspended for three days for firing his hunting rifle during an April dispute with three Marines in the woods of Hillsborough County. He said he thought they were poachers and never aimed at anyone.
Former Officer William Brownridge was being investigated by the department when he resigned April 5. Two weeks later he was charged with petty theft. Brownridge, 29, was sentenced to a pretrial intervention program this week.
A chain-of-command board looked at both incidents Thursday morning, just 22 days after the FBI arrested St. Petersburg Detective Anthony Foster on federal charges that he extorted $8,000 in cash and gifts out of his own confidential informant. The detective was suspended without pay and is awaiting trial.
The board noted that as a member of the command staff, Hawkins, 52, is "held to a higher standard of conduct." He expressed contrition to the board, Harmon said.
"I'm disappointed. As a senior staff member I think there are some different decisions that he should have made," the chief said. "But I don't think there was any intent to injure or harm anyone."
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The incident involving Hawkins took place in Plant City on April 8, according to an internal police investigation. The major, his wife and daughter were visiting a 190-acre ranch owned by another St. Petersburg officer. After target practice, they said they drove around the property looking for cows.
They saw two vehicles parked along a county road. The property had been hit in the past by poachers and trespassers, Hawkins said. So they stopped and photographed the vehicles. Then the major said he fired two warning shots from his hunting rifle.
But the other group, which was nearby, weren't poachers.
They were Marines and members of a University of South Florida ROTC program, who had permission to set up a training exercise in the adjacent Alafia Preserve for the next day.
"Hit the deck," screamed Midshipman Joshua Hollis, the report said, then threw himself on the ground.
Staff Sgt. Louis Miller ran to a tree for cover. Gunnery Sgt. James McClure also dropped to the ground.
Then they yelled: "Cease fire!"
The Marines called 911, and the two groups got into a heated argument.
In her report, Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Meghan Kowal wrote that there were conflicting accounts and no evidence of criminal activity.
Hawkins told Kowal that he fired into the ground to scare poachers away. Later he called the deputy back and said he fired at a dirt hill away from the direction of the Marines.
They disputed that. Miller and McClure both said they saw nearby grass move, as if "something traveled through it." The Marines also told the deputy that "they knew the difference between having a weapon fired at them and one fired away from them."
The command board ruled that Hawkins violated the department's rules and engaged in conduct unbecoming of an officer.
Any officer, whether on or off duty, cannot fire warning shots. Procedure only allows officers to shoot at a suspect, at target practice or while hunting.
Hawkins has spent 27 years on the force and earns $105,374 annually. His suspension will start today but he'll be back on the job by Monday. He declined to comment through the department.
McClure, the senior Marine at the incident, said Thursday that he did not have permission to comment.
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Brownridge, a member of the force for three years, was a patrol officer on the night shift on Dec. 14 when he backed up another officer during a traffic stop.
Riding along with Brownridge: a potential police recruit.
After the driver was arrested, Brownridge searched him and found $70 in his pocket, according to an internal report.
Brownridge then kept $21, the recruit told investigators, and said: "Better in my pocket than the drug dealer's."
A few hours later, Brownridge did it again, the recruit said. This time, he took $50 from a hit-and-run suspect.
Brownridge, who earned $46,716 annually, denied taking money in one case and said he accidentally kept the money in the other. Neither he nor his attorney could be reached for comment Thursday.
During the internal investigation, Brownridge was assigned to answer phone calls. On Jan. 28, another issue arose: it was unclear if Brownridge attended the funerals of two fellow St. Petersburg officers — or skipped work. The department could not account for his whereabouts, and Brownridge did not offer an explanation.
"If he wouldn't have quit," Harmon said, "he would have been fired."