What school Superintendent Carl Austin meant as a compliment to the "new breed" of young law enforcement officers walking a beat this year in Citrus schools has been received as an insult by two groups of retired police officers in Citrus County.
Representatives from the groups last week called for Austin to apologize and receive a public censure for a comment he made at a news conference several weeks ago where new school resource and drug education officers were introduced.
Austin, noting that the emphasis of the two programs is on education rather than on strictly law enforcement, said, "What we didn't want was retired, flat-foot police officers with nightsticks" in those positions.
When Austin's comment appeared in the Times on Oct. 2, there was an immediate, angry reaction from several retired police officers.
"That statement describes the stereotypical 6-foot-4-inch tall, dumb, stupid cop who doesn't know how to deal with anything except to go out with his nightstick and beat people," said retired New York City police Officer Robert Barchiesi. "That kind of statement implies a lot more than just what's on the face of it."
"The statement that the man made was obviously made without any thought whatsoever," said Mike Gargano, secretary for the local chapter of the National Association of Retired Law Enforcement Officers, or NARLEO.
Gargano stressed that law enforcement officers pride themselves on their education and many have degrees and special training.
"The more I knew, the more I could help people out on the streets," he said. "That education doesn't disappear when you're retired."
The 90 local members of NARLEO want to see how Austin reacts to their concerns before deciding their next move, Gargano said.
Jay Fudim, president of the local chapter of the 10-13 Club, said he believes that Austin's statement "does a great injustice to police officers all over the United States. . . . I think he has made law and order a dirty word."
The 10-13 Club is made up of former and current New York police officers, of which there are about 100 locally.
Fudim said Austin should be "censured and reprimanded" because his statement makes it harder for police officers to earn the respect they need to do their jobs.
The former officers met with the Times last week and said they are so offended by Austin's comment that they have already passed copies of the article on to national law enforcement publications.
"I'm going out of my way on this . . . because this man had enough time to retract this statement," said retired Officer Frank Gilleeny. He added that he was especially upset at "the arrogance of that office . . . when they belittle and besmirch the one organization that keeps us from anarchy _ law enforcement."
Austin said his statement was meant to point up his happiness with the law officers selected to work in the Citrus schools because they are both educated and young enough to relate well to students.
"I'm not going to argue or fight with them," he said. "I had no intention of reflecting negatively on any person or group in our community."
Barchiesi was also upset because he wrote a letter to Austin requesting an explanation for his statement, but Austin has yet to respond.
Austin said he has received the letter, but he chose not to respond because the letter was "very negative."
"I'd felt comfortable with what I'd said," he said.
Austin also noted that Citrus Sheriff Charles Dean, Capt. Oren Woodward and the other officers in the room at the time he made the statement did not seem offended. Dean and Woodward were not available for comment last week.
This is not the first time that the school system and Barchiesi and Gilleeny have crossed paths.
The two former officers pushed hard for the school district and Sheriff's Office to start the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. They blamed foot-dragging by the school administration for a delay in starting the program.
The two also recently won the top leadership positions of the county's Juvenile Justice Council, despite a move by school officials who also serve on the council to elect leaders from their own ranks.
Gilleeny said he wondered if Austin's comments were aimed at them because of lingering resentment from those issues.
Barchiesi said the current controversy has nothing to do with those past encounters.
"I want to make it clear, I'm not reacting because of DARE but because of the statement itself. As a student of policing, I find it very insulting," he said.
"At a time when a positive program is in place, why not have applause and fanfare? This is not a time to issue degrading comments."
All of the officers noted that if while on the job they had ever made a disparaging remark about a racial minority, a woman or anyone else, they would be held accountable and possibly fired.
They also stressed that in police organizations, educational credentials are often substantial.
Asked if an apology by Austin would ease the sting of his comments, the officers were doubtful.
"I think he needs to sit down with police officers and organizations and say it was a mistake," Barchiesi said. "It sends the wrong message out to kids and sends the wrong message out to people who work in the school system . . . it sends the message out that you don't like cops and police officers.
"When you're in a position too long, you become arrogant," he said. "The school superintendent and the school administration needs to take another look at itself. They are answerable to the people. They are responsible for degrading statements."
Austin said he has made many positive comments about DARE and the school resource officer programs but not all of them have appeared in the newspapers. He said he believes he is being "quoted somewhat out of context."
He said that if the statement was offensive to some people, "I guess I'm innocent because of ignorance.
"I was just complimenting the young, positive-minded, degreed role models for students that we've had. . . . I think it was read out of context."
He also added that he would be willing to meet with the officers to discuss their concerns. "My door is always open . . . but they're using the media to get their message through."
Barchiesi has sent a letter to School Board members noting that Austin referred to "we" in his comment and asking if they support his view.
Several board members who received the letter by late last week said they didn't think Austin meant to be insulting but that he should respond quickly to the criticism.
"I would think that Mr. Austin would apologize," said board member Kevin Cunningham. "I think he thought of it more as a slang term. . . .I think it just came right off the tip of his tongue."
Board member Janet Herndon said: "It would have been easy for him to say, "I didn't say that' or "I did and I'm sorry.'
"I can understand their frustration. He is a public servant."