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String of events test Tarpon Spring's ability to cope

TARPON SPRINGS — Tuesday was a marathon for police Chief Robert Kochen and his department.

Awakened about 2 a.m., he was told a gun shop in town was ablaze. A short time later, another call informed him four bodies had been discovered, an apparent murder-suicide related to the fire.

By 2:45 a.m., Kochen was on the scene of that shockingly violent crime. But that was just the start.

By midafternoon, Tarpon police were performing a large-scale search of the home of George Stephen Georgiou, 22, who police suspected killed his grandparents in January. While Kochen was attending a City Commission meeting that evening, his detectives were interviewing and then arresting Georgiou, charging him with murder and arson in the death of his grandparents, Steve and Flora Georgiou, and the torching of their house.

Even after midnight that day, on his drive home, Kochen wasn't free from the jangle of the phone: There was a motorcycle fatality on the stretch of U.S. 19 that runs through the city.

"Unfortunately, when these things happen, we have a role to play: Find out who did it and bring it to a successful conclusion," said Kochen, 44. "I keep my eye on the ball. We work as a team, but you have always got to keep your eye on the ball."

Kochen, a veteran police officer, was appointed chief of the Tarpon Springs Police Department in July — just a few months after an employee of the Publix supermarket there gunned down a co-worker and was wounded in a subsequent shootout with a Tarpon police officer.

And since January, the city has seen a rash of violence: a suicide and six murders in a town that usually averages only one murder a year.

So many serious crimes in such a short span can drain the resources of a small police force. In addition, having to witness the horrific crime scenes and investigate such tragedy can cause emotional distress for officers.

Laurence Miller, the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, said to mitigate stress, small- to medium-size departments need peer support, a collegial working environment and solid administrative support.

"If higher-ups are helpful and the officers feel their work is being appreciated is key," Miller said.

It's important that officers have access to counseling without embarrassment or stigma, he said, and how the media handles the story of the crimes also can affect the officers' stress level.

"If the media is playing it as if it's guys doing a difficult job under difficult circumstances (that) has an important effect in mitigating stress," Miller said. "With those things in place, most departments can weather almost anything."

All of those things are in place at the Tarpon department, Kochen said. Wednesday, the day after that string of draining events, Kochen sent an e-mail to his employees.

"These events greatly challenged our agency, but during times like these agencies either 'fall apart and fail to deliver' or 'step up to meet the challenges,' " Kochen wrote. "I can tell you that as an agency we 'stepped up' and shined during some difficult times! Thank you for all of your hard work and perseverance!"

Kochen is a working chief, and so are his other administrative officers — that's how the small department helps cover the city of more than 23,000. While he doesn't micromanage, Kochen said he and his two captains provide and assist at scenes if needed. He said all of his officers are trained to fill multiple roles.

"We also rely on our resources around us to chip in during times like this," he said. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the State Fire Marshal's Office are some of the agencies that have helped the Tarpon department carry the load.

The Tarpon Police Department has only 49 sworn officers and six detectives to serve 23,484 residents. By comparison, Naples has 71 sworn officers, nine detectives and 19,537 residents. The city of Casselberry near Orlando has 52 sworn officers, seven detectives and 26,241 residents.

Tarpon City Manager Mark LeCouris, the former police chief, believes the department is adequately funded. Its budget for fiscal year 2011 is $5.9 million — slightly less than the $6.2 million that was budgeted in fiscal year 2010.

"Kochen is a good watcher and user of the budget," LeCouris said.

Kochen believes in the culture of teamwork. When it comes to funding and staffing, he said he is working with the "new normal."

"If you decentralize and you empower people to do their jobs, give them the resources and work with them as a team, so much more gets accomplished," Kochen said.

"That's going to be everybody's challenge in the new normal where resources are shrinking and governments are cutting back."

Contact Demorris A. Lee at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174. Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg, news researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Lorri Helfand contributed to this report.

.fast facts

How Tarpon police stack up

Tarpon Springs: 49 sworn, 6 detectives, population 23,484

Gulfport: 29 sworn, 3 detectives, population 12,029

New Port Richey: 35 sworn, 4 detectives: population 14,911

Naples: 71 sworn officers, 9 detectives, population: 19,537

Casselberry: 52 sworn, 7 detectives population 26,241

Largo: 137 sworn, 16 detectives, population 77,648

Clearwater 231 sworn, 46 detectives, population 107,685

St. Petersburg: 539 sworn, 144 detectives, population 244,769

Source: Police Departments and 2010 U.S. Census

String of events test Tarpon Spring's ability to cope 03/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:32pm]
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