New PHSC law enforcement academy director settles into role

The new director of the PHSC program wants high standards.
Steve Hartnett's appointment ended a conflict between the college and the Sheriff's Office. BRENDAN FITTERER   |   Times
Steve Hartnett's appointment ended a conflict between the college and the Sheriff's Office.BRENDAN FITTERER | Times
Published October 2 2014

DADE CITY — Capt. Steve Hartnett hardly looks comfortable in his new desk chair. He leans forward, his hands resting on a marked-up calendar while he talks about improvement.

First: himself. He's still working on this transition from patrol work in Tampa to a formal academic environment at Pasco-Hernando State College's law enforcement academy in the rural northeast Pasco hills. He asks for advice from instructor coordinator Kyle Hughes and executive director Charlie May who use the offices on either side of his.

"As a police officer, you're used to cut-to-the-chase," he says. "You go, you figure it out, you take care of business, then you move on. Here, you have to slow down a little bit."

He wants to make sure there are no missteps, that everything is done according to policy. He uses the word "best" more than any other. As in: he wants to figure out the best way to do his job. He wants to give recruits the best education he can. To do this, he plans to hire the best instructors from agencies in the area so they can turn out the best hires.

Hartnett, 50, won't entertain talk about the past. But it bears noting that his hiring comes at the resolution to a year of conflict between the Pasco Sheriff's Office and PHSC.

Last summer, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco began to express misgivings about the quality of instruction at the academy. He accused the college of not meeting ethical standards, using favoritism in hiring and employing disgruntled former Sheriff's Office employees who pass on bad morale to prospective recruits.

One academy instructor, James Nagy, who also worked at the Tarpon Springs Police Department, was fired from the police department less than a year into his tenure after he was accused of taking video of a 14-year-old girl's rear end while working security at a skating rink. But he continued working at the college until November when he was fired amid a sexual harassment complaint. College officials said he witnessed harassment and did not report it.

The sheriff's attorney also said the academy's equipment was sparse and training facilities were dilapidated. In January, Nocco proposed opening a new academy with the school district at Marchman Technical Education Center in New Port Richey. The plan was eventually abandoned in favor of finding common ground.

By April, talks distilled to one sticking point: Who would appoint the academy's director?

Then, on Aug. 26, the PHSC board of trustees unanimously approved a proposal by the Sheriff's Office to appoint a director of the academy. Hartnett started the job a week later.

Nocco said he sought out Hartnett for his reputation and his experience.

He started on road patrol at TPD and rose through the ranks to become a captain, patrolling rough parts of town at all hours of the night.

"When you sit with Steve, you realize he's a person of integrity and commitment," Nocco said. "I think that's a key component of this job. He's building these relationships and partnerships with all of the agencies of the county and the college."

The college seems to agree, too.

"The entire public services team is working well together," wrote PHSC spokeswoman Lucy Miller in an email, "with the common and long standing goal to train well trained law enforcement officers."

So far, Hartnett's office is mostly bare of personal effects, save for the two U.S. Marine Corps covers, a British police bobby hat and a Citadel football helmet atop a row of cabinets behind his desk.

The son of a Marine, he graduated high school near Camp Lejeune, N.C., then went to the Citadel where he played football his first year and rugby the rest of the time. He graduated in 1985 and became an infantryman in the Marines. Then he moved to Tampa and enrolled in Hillsborough Community College's police academy. He put in 26 years at the Tampa department.

The bobby hat, he got in a swap a few year ago with a London Metropolitan Police officer.

Hartnett wears his Citadel ring on his left hand and his wedding ring on the right. He never got the rings resized after breaking his fingers over his time on the force, including car accidents. The rings fit better on the opposite hands, so he kept them that way. He doesn't like to go into war stories.

As the Tampa Police Department's lead firearms and driving instructor, he spent enough time teaching to develop his own theories on the matter.

"You don't have to have a rank to be able to guide and put your touch on things," he said. "I learned that if I want to make things better or improve the process, you have to do it one (recruit) at a time."

This is why on Tuesday he had Larry Holt, a master patrolman with Tampa police, in his office. They've known each other for several of Holt's 24 years on the force, so Hartnett told him to stop by to talk about an instructor position. Hartnett says he wants to hire people he knows are a good fit.

"The most important part of my structure is the first-line people," he said.

Then he addressed agencies: "Send me your champions so we can make them here."

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