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Pinellas sheriff will leave a bucket of memories

It is safe to say the Pinellas County sheriff will not be remembered for dressing inmates in pink underwear or for feeding them green baloney, like a certain sheriff in Arizona.

Nor will Jim Coats be recalled as the sort of chest-thumping lawman two counties east of us who once explained to a reporter that a suspect was fired upon 110 times and struck 68 because "that's all the ammunition they had."

No. Ask Coats what he hopes to be remembered for after 40 years, seven as sheriff, and he mentions the bus.

He names other things, too — programs to help kids and get them into something besides trouble, or the department's tobacco-free hiring policy. There's the same-sex partner benefits he put in place soon after taking office, an eyebrow-raiser in macho cop culture, but he did it anyway.

And then there's the bus, interesting technology, sure, but also its purpose of going a little farther for people who could use it.

His office fixed up the first bus for $62,317 all told — federal funds, the sheriff says, no local tax dollars. Equipped with five computer stations, the "mobile visitation center" travels to St. Petersburg, Largo, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs, connecting lower-income and elderly people who can't get to the jail with inmates they care about for on-screen visits. It's innovative enough to bring a California technology magazine to town last week — and also alleviates visitor crowding at the actual facility.

People take to Coats' easy style. At 67, he is resigning in November not because he doesn't still love the job or even because of a particularly bruising legislative session last time around. Some reasons are bigger.

He met her decades back at a restaurant called the Charcoal Den after a fellow deputy told him about this good-looking waitress. Cat Coats, whom he married 37 years ago, has had some complications from breast cancer surgery. And even with a prognosis that is good, you can get to thinking maybe work is not the most important thing. They will go out on their boat, travel some.

He will leave with a bucket of memories, of coming here in a '68 Dodge Charger after his last tour in the Air Force — in Hawaii — convinced him not to return to chilly upstate New York. He had no plans for policing, but the Sheriff's Office was starting a flight unit. So he flew for it, a plane and later a helicopter.

He was sheriff when rumors surfaced that Gov. Jeb Bush might use state lawmen to forcibly remove Terri Schiavo from hospice, something that thankfully did not occur, and when a deputy shot 19-year-old Jarrell Walker in the back, sparking controversy, criticism and change. He let a Times reporter spend 48 hours living in his overcrowded jail to write about it, right down to the smells. He offered unused housing space for a homeless shelter so street people could end up there instead of incarcerated. And he went to Tallahassee, a place where high-ranking cops were once treated with deference.

This year it was Oz. Officers who spoke against a law to let citizens openly carry guns were sometimes treated like addled uncles. They won the day, but it wasn't pretty. This did not scare off Coats, even if it frustrated him. In fact, next session, you may just see him there again as a representative on police issues, lobbyist being a word he doesn't much like.

And around here, he'll leave a legacy beyond the baloney they serve up elsewhere.

Pinellas sheriff will leave a bucket of memories 09/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 9, 2011 6:23am]
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