The death Sunday of Belleair police Officer Jeffery Tackett, on patrol alone when he was shot with his own gun by a burglar, has some officials questioning the wisdom of single-officer patrols.
"Strictly from an officer-safety standpoint, you've got to look at it," Indian Shores police Chief Earl Williams said Tuesday. "It's a bigger problem than staffing. Sometimes things happen for no apparent reason."
Eighteen of the county's 24 municipalities have their own police departments. Small departments do not always have enough officers to provide several on patrol or backup on dangerous calls, such as a burglary in progress.
Indian Shores has 13 full-time police officers, three more than Belleair. Indian Shores also has a contract to patrol Redington Shores. And like many other small police departments, only one officer is on patrol in the early morning hours.
"I've got a three-hour gap where there's only one person," Williams said. "But I'm thinking about rearranging the schedule. You see a changing society and changes in the way people react to police and authority."
Pinellas County Commissioner Charles Rainey, a strong supporter of consolidation of small police departments to provide an adequate number of officers, said Tackett's death could have been prevented.
"There's only one reason for this boy's death," Rainey said Monday. "If there had been two police officers, there would have been no shooting. It's a perfect argument for consolidation. It's a shame somebody had to die to prove it."
Tackett, 28, a five-year veteran of the Belleair department, was shot while investigating a burglary complaint alone about 11:15 p.m. Sunday at Pelican Place condominiums. Lorenzo Lamar Jenkins, 31, was arrested later in Clearwater and charged with murder.
Jim Lau Bach, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association, said Tackett, who was Belleair's union representative, had expressed some safety concerns, including having only one officer on patrol at night.
"There wasn't any real policy as to who you would call for a backup," Lau Bach said Tackett told him. "I had several conversations with Jeff about that issue alone. He was very upset that the town didn't see the need to put more than one officer on the street."
Larger police departments, including Clearwater's, sometimes send a backup officer on nearly every call. More than one backup officer goes to a burglary in progress call in Largo, said Sgt. Don Holcomb.
Indian Shores officers get backup aid from other beach police departments and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office whenever it is needed, Williams said. His officers can communicate with the other departments themselves without going through a dispatching system and get quick response in emergencies.
Some small police departments, such as Belleair's, have their own dispatchers and radio systems, and officers on patrol cannot communicate with other departments.
Others, including Belleair Bluffs and Indian Rocks Beach, are dispatched under contract by the Sheriff's Office, which patrols unincorporated areas and some cities without police departments.
Shifts also vary from city to city. Some, including Belleair, work 10-hour shifts, others eight.
While some chiefs consider the shorter shifts more efficient for a small department, Belleair Bluffs police Chief Bill Mangum is a strong believer in his six officers' working 10-hour shifts. "It gives us an overlap of four hours on each shift. But we're flexible _ we have to be."
But Mangum and Indian Rocks Beach police Chief Charlie Flesher believe their backup officer system, which comes from mutual aid agreements with other departments, is adequate. The size and geography of their cities make the system work, they said.
"I can be anywhere here in a minute and a half," Flesher said. "We teach classes here monthly on using backups, and we get backup from Belleair Beach and Indian Shores."
Belleair police Chief Harry Gwynne, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, said at a news conference Monday that he did not see any need for a unified dispatch system or additional backup for his officers. He said he was unaware of complaints by Tackett about safety.
But Lau Bach of the PBA said safety is a serious problem in small cities.
"They all want their own police departments, but they really don't want to put the money into salaries, officers' training, equipment and safety," he said. "If two or three officers had shown up on that call, we probably would not have a dead officer now."
_ Staff writer Amelia Davis contributed to this report.
Pinellas police departments
FULLTIME STARTING OVERALL
OFFICERS SALARY BUDGET
Belleair 10 $19,084 $656,830
Belleair Beach 5 $20,103 $294,000
Belleair Bluffs 7 $20,343 $334,000
Clearwaer 240 $24,698 $18,700,000
Dunedin 53 $21,910 $4,100,000
Gulfport 26 $20,564 $1,700,000
Indian Rocks 13 $18,807 $616,660
Indian Shores 13 $19,927 $577,281
Kenneth City 11 $21,302 $650,000
Largo 114 $24,149 $7,900,000
Madeira Beach 15 $22,443 $861,810
N Redington Beach+ 7 $22,233 $438,787
Pinellas County sheriff 613 $23,428 $86,700,000++
Pinellas Park 70 $23,233 $5,660,000
St. Petersburg 515 $25,072 $44,290,000
St. Petersburg Beach 31 $25,309 $2,300,000
Treasure Island 20 $22,921 $1,054,000
+Also Redington Beach ++Includes jail and court security