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Police chief retires to head county drug unit

St. Petersburg police Chief Sam Lynn, a 26-year department veteran, will retire to head up a new countywide narcotics bureau, he announced Wednesday. "Chief Lynn is clearly the best man for this job," Sheriff Everett Rice said in a prepared statement. He appointed Lynn to the new post.

"I've known him for 22 years," Rice said. "He brings with him a wealth of experience in narcotics investigation, law enforcement administration, knowledge of the community and a good working relationship with federal and state police agencies."

Lynn, who oversees 475 sworn officers and 205 civilians in the St. Petersburg Police Department, will leave his job March 31 and will begin his new post April 2.

An interim chief will be named by the end of the week, City Manager Robert Obering said. He said he is considering Assistant Police Chief Art Runyon.

Runyon said he is thinking about applying for Lynn's job. Deputy Police Chief Goliath Davis also has been mentioned as a top contender.

Observers say Lynn's new appointment should help minimize the turf rivalries that have sidetracked multiagency drug operations in the past.

"Narcotics enforcement has always interested me," Lynn said Wednesday at a press conference. "It's going to require a great deal of coordination bringing together both federal, state and local agencies."

Lynn's departure was no surprise within his own department. It has been rumored for more than a year that Lynn, who became eligible for maximum retirement benefits last year, would leave for a high-ranking job with the Sheriff's Department.

Lynn, 48, will take charge of a squad of 67 sheriff's narcotics detectives, including 25 detectives that the Pinellas County Commission is expected to approve financing for next week. The bureau eventually would include detectives from other local departments, including St. Petersburg, and federal and state investigators. Sheriff Rice is touting the squad as the county's major weapon in battling the import of drugs into Pinellas.

Lynn is leaving a police department that some officers say is increasingly slipping in its war against crime. Morale is poor and the department is hampered by citywide budget woes, they say.

"Everything has gone downhill," said police Officer Sam Giardina, president of the Police Benevolent Association. "We've not progressed at all. It's not the chief's fault. It's City Council's fault."

But some officers charge that the lackluster style of Lynn, who rarely mingles with the rank and file, has done little for their morale.

"Sam has not been what you would call an aggressive manager when it comes to his police officers," Giardina said. "A lot of them didn't know who he was. He isolated himself.

"Hopefully the next chief will take a hands-on attitude and get to know the troops," he said.

Lynn said at Wednesday's press conference that he has not become isolated from the department's drug-fighting operations.

"As chief, there are decisions on reverse stings that I still make," he said. "It's not as though it's something I've been away from for a lot of years."

Some improvements have been made during Lynn's years as chief. Shortly after he was named chief in April 1981, the City Council agreed to spend $1.6-million to hire 50 more officers.

The department continued to set a standard nationwide for integrating technology into police work. Officers type their reports in their cars on laptop computers. Car phones are becoming more common.

The department was accredited in 1985 by the newly formed Commission for Accreditation, which sets the highest standards for police work. Lynn, who is currently an accreditation commissioner, is expected to travel to Albuquerque later this spring to accept the department's reaccreditation.

But the department's status as a well-equipped, well-financed operation has slipped. The department, which once had several helicopters, can't afford to put one in the air. It patrols the longest city coastline in Florida with one boat.

The department is chronically understaffed. The City Council has authorized money for 487 sworn personnel this budget year, but 31 of those positions remain vacant. Dispatchers say they often are holding 25 calls late at night. That means people who call the police, unless they've been robbed or burglarized, might have to wait hours for an officer to respond.

When Lynn became chief, he pledged to vigorously recruit minorities to the department. But only two of the department's 33 current trainees are black men. Five are women, one of whom is black.

Lynn acknowledged Wednesday that the department has suffered from some morale problems because of a tight budget. But overall, he said, he is proud of many improvements that have been made under his leadership. He also said that his job has been frustrating. Sometimes it seems as though the same people keep committing the same crimes, Lynn said.

Lynn joined the department in 1964 and worked his way up through the ranks. He was head of vice and narcotics in the early 1970s, then headed up the patrol division and finally became deputy chief in charge of investigative operations. He served as acting chief of police when Mack Vines left in December 1980. Lynn was named chief the following April.

When Lynn switches jobs, his salary will drop from $73,502 to $55,500. But he will receive another $40,000 from his pension. The chief said he had wanted to retire and did not want to leave friends, relatives and the weather for a job at another city.

"I was going to retire whether I went to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office or took some other job," Lynn said.