PINELLAS PARK — Officer John McNeil has long been one of the brightest lights in the Pinellas Park Police Department, winning numerous MADD awards for arresting the most drunken drivers and twice being named Officer of the Year.
McNeil is also the department's first chaplain and has received countless letters of praise citing his polite, professional demeanor. He has been praised by one assistant public defender who wrote to commend McNeil for his "courtesy and professionalism" during a DUI arrest. McNeil's conduct, the attorney said, was "exemplary."
Yet, just as McNeil should be celebrating his latest award from MADD, which came April 7, he is being criticized. The man pointing the finger is Tarpon Springs attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos, who represents a man McNeil arrested and charged with drunken driving.
Theophilopoulos says that McNeil is an overzealous officer who has become verbally abusive and is so intent on making a lot of arrests that he ignores the facts.
To back up his allegations, Theophilopoulos points to a different part of McNeil's personnel file with multiple disciplinary actions and complaints of rudeness, carelessness and incorrectly filed charges.
Even more damning, Theophilopoulos says, are the words of McNeil's supervisor. In a July 2007 memo, he states, "I have lost faith in Officer McNeil's ability to perform his duties without direct supervision."
The supervisor, Sgt. Tracey Schofield, recommended that McNeil be transferred back to patrol "immediately" as a way to help prevent McNeil's "careless and unneeded mistakes that continue to happen."
"He has an anger management problem," Theophilopoulos said. "He's clearly got an anger management problem. The department hasn't done anything about it. He is not discriminating. He's doing it to older people. He's doing it to middle-aged people."
But police Chief Dorene Thomas, who refused to transfer McNeil to patrol, said she has confidence in him. "I've always been pleased with his work," Thomas said. "I've always been pleased with him as a person."
McNeil denies Theophilopoulos' charges.
"The defense attorney is doing his job, which is to create doubt. … He's trying to discredit me," McNeil said. "I'm actually looking forward to the trial."
Theophilopoulos is the first to admit his client, Martin David Dowdy, has both legal and image problems. Dowdy is a member of the Outlaws motorcycle club and was wearing an Outlaws jacket the night McNeil arrested him. Law enforcement officers unfairly target Outlaws, Theophilopoulos said.
Pinellas County Jail records show that the Florida Highway Patrol charged Dowdy, 50, with DUI and refusal to submit to a Breathalyzer test in January 2006. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office arrested him in January 2007 and charged him with refusing to submit to a breath test. The sheriff charged him in February 2007 with DUI and refusing to submit to a breath test.
The next month, Dowdy and a friend were at Carlie's, a Pinellas Park nightspot. Soon after they left on Dowdy's motorcycle, McNeil spotted them. He followed Dowdy until he reached the 3300 block of 54th Avenue N, outside the Pinellas Park city limits. McNeil stopped Dowdy and eventually charged him with driving with a suspended or revoked license, DUI and refusing a breath test.
McNeil only filmed part of the incident with his in-car video camera. He cut it off after stopping Dowdy. "I guess I turned it off waiting for my backup to come," McNeil said. It was never turned back on.
Theophilopoulos said his client had only had a sip of alcohol and was never offered a breath test. He said McNeil was also verbally abusive during the arrest, "screaming" at his client so much that Dowdy "was scared for his safety," things that the in-car camera likely would have shown.
McNeil, 56, has worked for the Pinellas Park department since 1991. From the beginning, he was interested in traffic enforcement, especially DUI cases. That interest was fueled, he said, by experience — seeing the result of traffic crashes caused by drunken drivers. He became even more committed to the cause of eliminating drunken drivers when a friend was injured in a traffic crash. The friend was the passenger in a car driven by a drunken driver. That car was hit by another drunken driver.
"Drunk drivers damage property and hurt people," McNeil said.
The officer is proud of his record for catching drunken drivers, saying, "I've arrested two people in my church in the past for DUI."
But that very zeal makes people angry, he said. And sometimes, people complain.
The first complaint came in 1994 while he was a school resource officer. He was accused of physically pushing an argumentative high school student out of his office.
In 1996, he was given another oral warning for failing to submit a photopack into evidence. The second complaint about his demeanor came in 1998 from three juveniles who accused McNeil of using profanity during an investigation. McNeil wrote at the time that he "could not flatly deny using a profane word as I am very human."
He again received a written reprimand in 2003 for engaging in a vehicle pursuit against department regulations. The next year, McNeil received a written reprimand for charging a man with trespassing even though he knew the man had been invited onto the property and was, therefore, not trespassing. McNeil received a second written reprimand in 2004 for failing to appear in traffic court.
The department issued another written reprimand in 2005 when McNeil was accused of filing a charge of vehicular homicide against a defendant when he knew the victim was still alive.
He was accused in 2006 of bring "rude and very short" with someone he'd ticketed for speeding. Later that year, a Pinellas Park resident wrote the mayor a letter complaining that McNeil had treated his wife rudely when ticketing her for not putting on her headlights.
The next year — 2007 — was a bad year for McNeil. He had two accidents while driving his patrol car and also failed to make a court appearance. A woman accused him of being belligerent and charging her with a seat belt violation even though she was using the seat belt. She suggested McNeil could benefit from "communications, anger management, conflict resolution, and gender management training classes." A man accused McNeil of threatening to take him to jail for DUI even though he had done no field sobriety tests. The man was never charged with DUI, only with speeding.
In another instance, he was accused of citing the owner of a car with speeding although the man had not been driving. The car owner's son was the driver.
It was that last incident that caused Schofield to suggest he be sent back to patrol.
In a recent interview, McNeil conceded that 2007 was a bad year. Schofield's recommendation, he said, "was devastating to me."
"He expects the best. That's sometimes hard to meet," McNeil said. "I was disappointed that he was disappointed (in me)." McNeil said he has used the experience as a wake-up call, and denied that he had burned out.
"I'm not at my wit's end at all. I have a great support system," he said.
Thomas, the chief, agrees with that assessment. Some officers, she said, go through bad patches. That's what happened with McNeil. Since then, she said, his performance has been exemplary and has borne out her confidence in him.
Staff writer Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or email@example.com.