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Petty crime or grand offense?

Carl Austin is learning a lesson that public speakers know all too well about so-called throwaway lines: Sometimes they boomerang and clobber you.

Several weeks ago, when the school superintendent introduced the young, "new breed" of deputies who serve in the school resource and DARE programs, he distinguished between their roles as educators and law enforcers.

"What we didn't want," he said, "was retired, flat-foot policemen with nightsticks" patrolling the halls.

If the officers on hand, including Sheriff Charles Dean, were insulted, they didn't show it.

But retired police officers sure felt the sting. Four of them, including representatives of two groups totaling 200 retired law officers who now call Citrus County home, met with the Times recently to vent their fury.

You might ask why they came to us and not Austin. One of the four, Bob Barchiesi, explained that he had sent a letter to Austin asking him about his "insensitive, degrading, stereotypical characterization of police officers," but the superintendent has chosen not to respond.

The former officers say that just proves their point, that Austin is arrogant and out of touch with the community. "He doesn't respect the retiree or the law enforcement community," Frank Gilleeny said.

True, it was a dumb thing to say. But Austin told the Times he didn't mean anything hurtful by it. "I had no intention of reflecting negatively on any person or group in our community."

Are the former officers overreacting?

It's not for me, you or anyone other than the officers themselves to say whether they are justified in feeling offended. Just as ethnic groups and others can be insulted by comments made in jest or in ignorance, the former officers say that even if he didn't intend to, Austin demeaned them.

And they have a point. As CEO of the school system, Austin sets the tone for the organization. If he is so cavalier with his words, what sort of standard does that set for the rest of the staff?

Austin said that if the statement was offensive, "I guess I'm innocent because of ignorance."

"Ignorance," Barchiesi replied, "isn't an excuse for someone in his position."

The former officers note that "sensitivity training" was part of their extensive education and that if they had insulted even one person on the beat, they would have been hauled before review boards and possibly fired.

Mostly, though, they are angry because even when he was told that he had insulted the retirees, Austin ignored the complaints. His comments now, they say, are too little too late.

"We gotta force an apology out of him?" Gilleeny said. "It's hard for me to swallow a forced apology."

Austin used the ever-popular "I was quoted out of context" line. So, let's examine the full context of the dispute.

Barchiesi and Gilleeny are gaining visibility around Citrus through occasional letters to newspapers and as members of the Juvenile Justice Council.

As members of the council, they pushed to get DARE, a drug-prevention program, started in the schools, and in the process publicly criticized Austin and his administration for what they saw as foot-dragging.

They are becoming known in some circles, and not always flatteringly, as "those two guys." There are even hints that Barchiesi is eyeing a run for political office, possibly sheriff.

Barchiesi says not to confuse the two issues, that this has more to do with his past as a police officer than with his future.

Keep in mind that "those two guys" aren't the only ex-cops mad at Austin. Mike Gargano, of the National Association of Retired Law Enforcement Officers, and Jay Fudim, of the 10-13 Club, both blasted him.

And, no, this wasn't a setup. Gargano and Fudim met each other and Barchiesi for the first time at the Times' office.

It may seem a tempest to those outside of law enforcement, and "those two guys" should keep things in perspective. Austin may well be correct when he calls it a politically motivated issue.

But most police officers I know are proud of their profession and they don't take kindly to slights. As an executive, Austin should have known better than to make a remark like that.

As the county tries to slow the rising tide of juvenile crime by putting more police in schools so they can stop problems before they start, what Citrus County needs is more cooperation between the police _ active and retired _ and the schools.

What we don't need are wisecracks about "flat foots."