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Former Tarpon Springs cop's conduct leads to ride-along program changes

TARPON SPRINGS — The city's Police Department has tightened the reins on a program that allows residents to ride with police after an officer engaged in a relationship with a teenage participant.

Officer John Spatz, 34, was fired in December after officials learned that he had sexual contact with an 18-year-old woman who had done multiple ride alongs, despite a policy that limited participants to one every six months.

"We made some revisions after this came to light," said acting Chief Robert Kochen, who contends Spatz used the ride along program to meet the woman.

"We reviewed our policies and have tried to strengthen them as best we can."

Under the new policy, all prospective candidates for the ride along program will be coordinated through Lt. Barbara Templeton, an acting administrative captain in the department. Once the person has been placed with a patrol officer, that officer will notify Templeton when the ride begins and ends.

While the original criteria allowed participants to ride only once every six months for an eight-hour shift, the city didn't track how often people were riding along.

Spatz was fired for "sullying the badge" and bringing the city and the program into a tainted view, Kochen said.

Spatz has appealed that decision and at an arbitration hearing last week claimed that there was no policy that prevented him from having a relationship with another consenting adult while off-duty.

The girl was a 17-year-old Tarpon Springs High student when she started in the program.

Since 2001, 179 people have participated in the city's ride along program; 48 of them have been female. At least four of those females were under the age of 18 and required a parent or guardian's signature.

The Largo Police Department only allows 18-year-olds to participate in its program and a person can only ride once in a year.

In Clearwater, a person must be 16 years old or older. If under 18, a parent or guardian's signature is required. To track who rides in the city vehicles, an application must be submitted each time.

Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris is "pleased that they have tightened up the policy of the ride-along program."

"There will be a lot more scrutiny and oversight," Billiris said. "It's a shame the circumstance that happened put a black mark on the program, but it is a good program."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.

Former Tarpon Springs cop's conduct leads to ride-along program changes 06/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 15, 2009 8:38pm]
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