NEW PORT RICHEY — Jeff Harrington was a newly promoted lieutenant of the New Port Richey police force when he heard the call he can't forget.
In 2007, in a small triplex on Maple Street, a young mother named Jessica Warren had stabbed her 2-year-old son to death. The boy, Jeremiah, was found lying in a pool of blood. Warren, later acquitted of murder due to insanity, told a paramedic she did it to kill the demons.
Harrington, the detectives' supervisor and a former detective himself, worked late into the night. The case left investigators exhausted and emotionally drained — including Harrington, then the father of three children.
"You have to be able to compartmentalize," Harrington said. "You rely on your family. You rely on your friends. And you work through it."
Harrington knows well the challenges of law enforcement. A former prison guard, Harrington, 46, has worked with the department for 18 years and, in August, was promoted to chief after the retirement of Martin "Mo" Rickus. The management seat is especially fitting for Harrington, who, while working as a lieutenant, completed coursework for the online Capella University to secure his doctorate in organization and management.
"Jeff's one of those guys who never ever failed to take an opportunity to better himself," said Darryl Garman, the former assistant police chief who hired Harrington. "We knew sooner or later he was going to take over."
But Harrington's rise through the ranks was not without its own obstacles — including once, more than a decade ago, when he found himself on the wrong side of the law.
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Born in Brockton, Mass., Harrington's subtle Northeastern drawl betrays his roots as a Cape Cod native. His mother worked as a personnel director for a Massachusetts-based technology company; his father managed an F.W. Woolworth's five-and-dime.
A football player in high school, Harrington enrolled at Norwich University, a private military college in the Green Mountains of Vermont, as an offensive guard for the Norwich Cadets. He majored in history, with the intention of pursuing law school, but began studying criminal justice. The prospect of working away from an office excited him.
"That sense of adventure," Harrington said. "That sense of newness. The possibility of going out and putting someone in jail and keeping someone safe."
After graduating, he took a job as a corrections officer at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Mass. He was in his early 20s then, moving from the pleasantries of campus to the brutality of lockup, but the abrupt shift taught him a lesson that would last throughout his career.
"I learned words have meaning," Harrington said. "It's probably wiser to talk to someone and diffuse a situation than to deal with a conflict later on."
Harrington followed the work to Pasco County, near his grandparents' home in Trinity, and in 1991 became one of the first correctional officers at the Land O'Lakes jail. But enticed by the prospect of police work — he was an avid viewer of Cops, calling it a "great recruitment tool" — he applied for a position with the force in New Port Richey in 1992.
Harrington, Garman said, made a "heck of an impression" as a young recruit, patrol officer and detective. In 1997, he left the force for a chance at advancement with the Clearwater police.
He was fresh out of training early one fall morning when, at age 33, he found himself in handcuffs in the back of a patrol cruiser. Just after midnight, a few blocks from his apartment, his Nissan had collided with another car in a Palm Harbor intersection of U.S. 19. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper, smelling alcohol on his breath, arrested him on a charge of driving under the influence.
In court, a prosecutor based his case on Harrington's failure of field sobriety tests and his refusal to give blood at the scene of the crash. Hours before, Harrington and fellow officer Neil DePaul had completed a training course on the Intoxilyzer 5000, a police breath-tester, and went out to celebrate over dinner and pints of Newcastle at the Palm Harbor Ale House. The prosecutor argued Harrington had simply drank too much.
But Harrington, his attorney and a Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital physician who took the stand countered that Harrington had suffered a concussion in the crash that would have affected his performance on sobriety tests. They said that the five draft beers, by Harrington's account, wouldn't have fully impaired him. And they argued, most significantly, that the trooper had no proof of intoxication — Harrington refused to give blood at the scene, he said, due to a fear of needles.
A hung jury ruled the case a mistrial, but before the second trial Harrington changed his not guilty plea to no contest. He was fined, his license was revoked for six months, and he was ordered to attend community service and DUI classes. He was fired from Clearwater and rehired by New Port Richey within six months, with officers saying his skill and work ethic made him hard to pass up.
Harrington would not comment on details of the incident, saying the 13-year-old case had little bearing on the chief he has become. But Garman believes it was a pivotal point in Harrington's growth.
"It definitely rearranged priorities for him," Garman said. "It made him more driven to excel, and to prove himself, and to prove wrong anyone who doubted him. … It made him a better man."
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In the Adams Street police station, from a spartan corner office with a postcard that reads "Challenges," Harrington commands the county's largest police department.
The quiet city once home to mostly families and older couples is now paved over with the effects, and crimes, of urban sprawl. Officers deal regularly with drug trafficking, burglary and prostitution along its major roads. "There are things on U.S. 19 you wouldn't have seen 10 or 15 years ago," Harrington said.
That 70,000-vehicle-a-day stretch of Pasco highway, a fifth of which runs through the city, piles onto the officers' workload. But the biggest challenge, he said, remains the explosive impact of the prescription drug epidemic. Over the last five years, in New Port Richey alone, 70 people have died from prescription drug overdoses. Many more have been victimized by the drugs' addicts and dealers.
One of Harrington's first moves as chief was to assign one of the department's seven investigators to the sole pursuit of vice narcotics. That officer follows leads on fraudulent doctors, pill mills and the supply side of the prescription drug trade; another investigator pursues street-level drug dealing.
"A lot of these crimes have to do with pills," he said. "Instead of just keep addressing the symptoms, we need to drill down to the real issue, the prescription fraud."
It's not a problem that can be solved overnight. The complexities and frustrations of the illegal pill market — especially in Florida, known to some as a trafficking stop on the "OxyContin Express" — are relentless. Harrington's job is full time, including taking calls from home, where he lives with his wife, Renee, and children Troy, 15, Abigail, 11, and Liam, 5.
But it's a challenge Harrington said he doesn't regret accepting.
"I've worked tremendously hard," he said, "to get where I am."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or [email protected]