CLEARWATER — Dan Slaughter dreamed of building planes, maybe even working for NASA. An aeronautical engineering major in college, he wanted to know how things worked.
But when a close friend decided to join the police academy, Slaughter reconsidered his career path.
"I didn't want a job where I was going to be in an office at a desk. I was interested in kind of being mobile, being active," he said. "I thrive at the phone ringing at 2 in the morning and kind of getting a complicated, chaotic problem on my plate."
During his 22-year career at the Clearwater Police Department, he has solved homicides, revised department policies, trained officers and helped the homeless.
This week, Slaughter, 44, will take on his next challenge: being chief.
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Daniel William Slaughter was born in Omaha and grew up in Bellevue, Neb., with his parents and two brothers. In 1983, the family moved when his father took a job running an optical lab in Clearwater.
Slaughter played the trumpet in Largo High's Band of Gold along with his close friend, Clearwater police Lt. James Kleinsorge. They shared a common interest in planes. Kleinsorge wanted to fly them and Slaughter build them.
"He was more analytical, detail-oriented," Kleinsorge said, recalling a time when Slaughter took apart a broken TV.
He's that way at home too, according to his wife, Holly. They met about 21 years ago at a Chili's in Largo. She was the hostess and he had just walked in for dinner after his shift. They exchanged numbers. Holly called first.
The couple, who have been married 19 years, live in Trinity with their 16-year-old daughter, Jamie, and a Dachshund mix, Snickers.
"If something happens with the pool, if something broke and needs to be fixed," Holly Slaughter said, "he is a go-getter. He has to fix it himself. And if he doesn't know something, he will learn it."
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Kleinsorge decided to go into law enforcement, prompting Slaughter to think about doing the same. He switched his major to criminology and graduated from the University of South Florida in 1992. That same year, Slaughter was hired at the Clearwater Police Department.
He patrolled several areas, including Condon Gardens, a housing project plagued with drugs and domestic violence. He worked midnight shifts on Clearwater Beach. He took an interest in talking to troubled kids. He remembers arresting a man accused of repeatedly shutting his wife inside a bathroom.
"It's not a sexy case," Slaughter said. "But I feel good about what I did."
As a homicide detective, Slaughter was among officers investigating the disappearance of 8-year-old Zachary Bernhardt in 2000. The boy was never found.
"As an officer, you have missing kids. It's not an uncommon thing. Most of the time, you find them hiding inside a closet, you find them at a friend's house," Slaughter said. "It's definitely one I wish I would have seen closed and I hope to see it closed before I leave."
Promotion after promotion, Slaughter took on different tasks. He was an internal affairs sergeant and later a special operations lieutenant.
While still working, he obtained an MBA in 2007 from the University of Phoenix.
"He works very hard, puts in a lot of hours," said his brother, Largo police Lt. Stephen Slaughter. "I don't think you're going to find at any time that he is not one of the hardest workers that you have ever seen."
In 2012, current Chief Tony Holloway, who will leave this month to lead the St. Petersburg Police Department, appointed Slaughter as patrol major. That same year, the city launched a homeless initiative and Slaughter made sure his officers, about 170 in all, got involved. They began referring transients to services and shelters.
"The whole strategy is offering, offering, offering," he said. "And whether the person takes it the second, fifth, or 200th time, hopefully some time they'll just take advantage of it."
Slaughter credited the department for making the program successful, but officials said it was his determination that made it work.
"He certainly is a guy who wants to push credit," Kleinsorge said. "He is a conservative person on the exterior. A lot of that conservativeness may have to go away."
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Slaughter faces some challenges.
Prostitution persists in parts of Clearwater. The beach has also morphed into a tourism magnet, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Homelessness is still a problem.
Community policing will continue at the department, comprised of 235 officers, 137 civilian employees and a $36 million annual budget. Slaughter said officers will keep interacting with residents during their shifts, a strategy known for years as "park, walk, and talk."
"That's what I perceive is one of my greatest challenges," Slaughter said. "Something that you feel your organization does great, how do you make it greater? … That's going to be hard, but I'm going to find a way."
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727)445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.