Monday, August 20, 2018
Public safety

Three decades of law enforcement brings St. Petersburg assistant chief home

ST. PETERSBURG — When James Previtera was a senior at St. Petersburg Catholic High School in 1983, his American government teacher gave the students a choice.

They could write a paper, spend a day in court or go on a ride-along with a St. Petersburg police officer.

Previtera chose the ride-along, and it changed his life.

"I guess I never realized there was this whole different world in St. Pete I had never seen," said Previtera, 50. "And it wasn't the discovery of that world that motivated me to go into law enforcement. It wasn't the excitement of it.

"It was just the realization that somebody has got to step up and do this."

Three years after the ride-along, Previtera became a deputy at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, the first step in a career that includes 11 years with the Pinellas sheriff, eight with the U.S. Secret Service, and nine with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. He has also been a security consultant for Major League Baseball since 2007.

Then in December 2014, Previtera joined the agency that inspired him 31 years earlier. He became an assistant chief at the St. Petersburg Police Department and supervisor of more than 140 detectives and 30 civilians in the Investigative Services Bureau.

And when he was sworn in, he asked Jim Royle, 78, his old American government teacher, to pin on his badge.

• • •

Previtera was only 19 when he became a Pinellas deputy – old enough to patrol the county but too young to buy bullets for his off-duty gun, he said with a laugh. His dad had to buy them.

His first night on patrol, Previtera said, he got a rude welcome: He had to pull his gun on a man who threatened him with a screwdriver.

A year and a half later, he was knocked unconscious while trying to help make an arrest in Safety Harbor.

As he lay in a hospital bed with staples in his aching head, Previtera said, he wondered — briefly — if he should take off the badge and do something else.

He didn't.

In late 1997, Previtera joined the U.S. Secret Service. In eight years there, he taught hand-to-hand combat to new agents and served in the detail that protected Vice President Dick Cheney in 2003-2005.

Previtera returned to the bay area to join the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in 2005, first as a major running the Training Division and then as a colonel in command of the county's 5,300-bed jail facilities.

The jail role, he said, was "probably the best part of my career in terms of development as a leader and as a law enforcement manager."

It was also an education. He learned many mentally ill people are criminalized and left untreated by the criminal justice system. One Hillsborough inmate was so ill he pulled an eyeball out of its socket and handed it to a deputy through the food slide, Previtera said.

At the time, Previtera said, about a quarter of the jail's population was on psychotropic medication.

To address the issue, he said, he did two things. He started a diversion program to get some inmates out of the detention system and into treatment. And he shook up his management team.

"I had to surround myself with the right people," Previtera said.

He took charge of the detention facilities six months after a video surfaced that showed a deputy at the Orient Road Jail dumping a quadriplegic inmate out of his wheelchair.

Amid a public outcry, the deputy resigned and was charged with one felony count of abuse of a disabled adult. An independent jail review commission established by Sheriff David Gee concluded that eight other deputies violated procedures.

At a news conference held by the commission, reporters asked Previtera to take questions.

He wasn't scheduled to speak, he said, and he was unprepared for what followed.

"I went up to the podium, and they proceeded to ambush me — and it was brutal."

But one television reporter, who was reading the commission report, asked Previtera to explain some of the positive changes he had while commanding the department's Training Division prior to the incident.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh my god, I love this woman.' "

He didn't see her again until late 2012, nearly five years later.

When he did friendship turned into love.

And in the fall of 2015, Previtera and the reporter — Laura Moody, a morning anchor at WTVT Fox 13 — were married.

• • •

With the marriage came the melding of two families. Previtera has four children and Moody, one. It also united a police officer and a journalist — two professions that often clash.

While their careers make for an interesting relationship, the couple said, they keep their professional and personal lives separate.

"She's very dedicated to her career, and I'm very dedicated to mine," said Previtera. "Sometimes, there are stories that are critical of law enforcement and she reports them and I disagree with her. But the good thing about us is that we tend to communicate very well, so even in disagreement we still can communicate effectively."

Previtera said Moody never asks him about work. If he gets a phone call when they're both in the car, he often calls back later or pulls over and gets out.

"The fact that he's a law enforcement officer and I work for the press, that makes for an interesting dynamic and our lives intersect in a lot of ways," Moody said.

A month after he joined the St. Petersburg department, Previtera got a phone call at 2 a.m.

He was jolted by what he heard.

"I went outside the room and was talking on the phone," he said. "I immediately went into the spare bedroom and got my uniform."

Moody arises at 3:15 a.m. to prepare for the morning newscast. She sat up in bed as he rushed back in the room.

"I knew that whatever it was, it was bad," Moody said.

"She asked, 'Am I going to be talking about this soon?','' he said. "And I said, 'Yeah, you are.' "

Then he left.

It was Jan. 8, 2015, the night police say 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck was dropped to her death off the Dick Misener Bridge by her father.

Moody texted Previtera when she got to the station.

"Dear god, tell me this isn't true."

• • •

Shortly after Anthony Holloway accepted the position as St. Petersburg's police chief in 2014, he asked Previtera to be an assistant chief and run the Investigative Services Bureau.

"I had no reason to leave Hillsborough,'' Previtera said. "But it was a chance to come back to my hometown and be part of something exciting."

Previtera oversees all of the department's detectives and investigative functions.

On a typical day, he said, he will be discussing a narcotics investigation and switch to an attempted homicide within 20 minutes.

Previtera said he tries to leave the office as much as he can. Under Holloway's "park, walk and talk" policy, all 550 sworn officers must get out of their cars and interact with the community for at least an hour a week.

"When I used to supervise deputies on the street, I called it 'get out and play football' because I would get out and play football with the kids, talk to them and get to know their parents," Previtera said. "In my opinion, that's the only way we, as a profession, are going to be able to re-establish ourselves to a level of respect in all communities."

Although December will mark 30 years since Previtera began police work, his old American government teacher still checks up on him.

"We might talk a couple of times a month; I know his job is so intense so I try not to bother him," Royle said. "But I worry about him, especially in his field. You don't know what's going to happen."

Royle saw a slew of students come and go over the years. Many went on to successful careers and stayed in touch.

But a few really stand out, Royle said.

"Jimmy was always special."

Samantha Putterman is a student reporter at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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