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Over nearly 30 years, Chief Sid Klein grew into leadership

Sid Klein has been Clearwater's police chief so long that the community got to see him mature as a man, as a chief and in his philosophical approach to police work.

He came to Clearwater from a Colorado department where he had been second in command and was nicknamed "Iceman" for his aloof manner. Law enforcement was his life and he was serious about it. People in Clearwater initially found him to be overly formal and rigid in his beliefs about policing. The law was the law, and policies were policies, and there didn't seem to be much gray in the way Klein saw the world.

Thursday, Klein announced he will retire in January after almost 29 years as Clearwater's chief. But when he departs, he won't be spoken of as the cool and distant "Iceman." He'll be remembered as a chief who bridged schisms between the police and the community, who cared for people very different from himself, and who, through both hard knocks as chief and personal tragedy, learned to question his assumptions and finally see the shades of gray.

In the early 1980s, Clearwater presented its new chief with some complicated problems. There was racial unrest, particularly in the North Greenwood area of the city, where police regularly clashed with residents. A secretive entity known as the Church of Scientology had moved into town and was regarded with fear, suspicion and open hostility by residents. Clearwater's enormous public housing project called Condon Gardens was plagued by lawlessness. Clearwater Beach was regularly gridlocked by cruising teens, infuriating residents and tourists alike.

And transients — those we now call the homeless — were a frequent irritation to downtown property owners. Klein had no sympathy for them. He let his officers put the transients in cruisers, drive them to the Pasco County line and drop them — an approach that brought an avalanche of criticism from those who ministered to the destitute.

A few years later, when city leaders asked Klein to find a solution to the problems with transients, Klein did some research and re-examined his attitudes, reaching a deeper understanding of the homeless and discovering a better way to address a policing challenge. He founded the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, a shelter with a variety of programs to help the homeless find work and improve their lives. Klein fought hard to get the shelter built and continued to battle for funding to keep it growing.

In North Greenwood and Condon Gardens, where officers once waded in dressed in riot gear and ready to knock heads, Klein looked beyond the lawlessness to the societal problems behind it and developed a more nuanced approach that became his hallmark. Long before "community policing" was a buzz phrase, he opened police substations in both Condon Gardens and North Greenwood (eventually in other neighborhoods as well) and assigned officers there who, while they would still enforce the law, would spend less time intimidating residents and more time trying to build trusting relationships. He said he wanted his officers to be seen as members of the community rather than "whip-cracking crackers." Klein won national attention for his innovations.

Klein learned to watch for changes in the city and maneuver to stay ahead of them. He and his officers were well-positioned when a trickle of Hispanic men arriving in Clearwater turned into a flow of immigrant families from Mexico, many of them unable to speak English and therefore unlikely to assimilate well and potentially easy victims of crime. Klein sent an officer to Mexico to learn about their culture and helped create the Hispanic Outreach Center to work with that population.

Klein did endure some rough spots as chief. A stickler for following the rules, he set the bar high when it came to the conduct of his officers and would not tolerate lying or unethical behavior. He didn't hesitate to discipline or fire officers who strayed and was livid if hearing officers reinstated them. Some officers chafed under his command. In 1988, union members cast a vote of no confidence in the chief.

However, as Klein battled for more training and manpower for his department, as he rode with officers or backed them up on calls, and as he endured the personal pain of losing two wives to cancer, officers developed respect for him and his guidance. A dozen of his officers went on to become chiefs of other departments.

Klein also weathered political problems. He didn't like playing the political game; he wanted to be left alone to run his department as he saw fit. In the late 1980s he clashed with then-manager Ron Rabun and says that Rabun ordered him to resign. Klein said he asked for six months to get his affairs in order and used that time to solidify his relationships with other city officials. Rabun left; Klein stayed.

City Manager Bill Horne and the City Council now face the tough task of finding a replacement for Klein. They know the size of that challenge and have announced they will conduct a vigorous national search.

Last week, Klein said he plans to become a "beach bum" in his retirement. He reflected on his years as chief and seemed satisfied. And well he should. Clearwater has become a quieter, safer city during his years of service, while he has grown in understanding the complexities of the people and community he serves.

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com.

Over nearly 30 years, Chief Sid Klein grew into leadership 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 10:42am]

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