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POLICE UNDER PRESSURE // In Inverness, a matter of trust

William Vitt vividly remembers his first day back at work as Inverness police chief in 1993.

He had left that same office four years earlier to become a pastor full time. In his absence, the quiet department had fallen into disarray. Morale and productivity were low. Bad publicity was high.

And then, literally, in walked Charles Berridy, who had served as interim police chief.

"He was the first one who said, 'Is there anything I can do?" Vitt recalled during a lengthy interview last week. "He was my go-to-guy. Chuck and I worked very closely."

For years, Vitt regarded Berridy, now 48, as his No. 2 man, his trusted assistant chief who kept tabs on the department's day-to-day doings, enabling Vitt to restore public trust in the struggling department and attend community meetings.

Now that trust has been washed away.

With Berridy and Officer Joanne Black's resignations this month amid accusations of misconduct, Vitt and other city officials are left to wonder what went wrong and why it went on for so long undetected.

"Do I feel betrayed? Yes. I'd have to say that," Vitt said. "I didn't know what I should have known because I depended on him."

A three-month investigation by Ocala prosecutors could not answer those questions. However, it did detail indiscretions as far back as 1991 and as recent as Oct. 6, when a botched drug bust unearthed a pattern of deceit.

That deceit centers on the unwavering trust Vitt felt for Berridy and the decisions Berridy began making as he rose in the department's ranks.

"There was a lot for me to see coming back after being away," Vitt said. "These things don't just jump out at you."

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City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said he doesn't fault his chief of police for not picking up on the problems sooner. Management is often the last to know, he said.

Still, he wants Vitt to have more direct contact with officers, rather than rely on someone in a position like Berridy's to relay information.

"The trust and latitude that was given in this case may have been part of the things that happened here," Di-Giovanni said. "But once the problem was discovered, the chief took steps that brought this to a conclusion, not furthered the problem."

The State Attorney's Office investigation, DiGiovanni said, provided the comprehensive, impartial review the Police Department needed.

"We don't intend to go through this every three years," he added. "We intend to fix things and get on with it."

To that end, DiGiovanni said he and Vitt have begun a self-audit to get the department back on track.

They are reviewing whether the position of assistant police chief is needed, what duties and authority such an officer should have and how the city can be certain such authority is not abused.

DiGiovanni said a top priority should be making sure every officer is adequately prepared to deal with situations that arise on the street. The investigation showed that another Inverness officer, Dawn Lees, was not properly trained to handle her tasks as a drug investigator.

"We already do extensive back-ground checks and interviews, but that sould not end once a person is on the force," DiGiovanni said. "Supervisors are responsible for continually evaluating a person to decide whether they are suited for law enforcement, need more training or, perhaps, are not right for the job."

The future of the K-9 unit is up in the air. Officer Black was the department's K-9 handler. Vitt said he discussed the unit with his officers, who think the department could use a drug-sniffing dog. Black was trained to use police dog Kato to attack and search buildings, for example.

The department is advertising for two officers: One will be hired with money from a federal grant; the other will replace Black. Because Berridy's resignation is not effective until May 13, Vitt can not fill a post that is not officially open.

He also is asking experts to come in and teach courses to keep his officers up to date on proper procedure. Recently, Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway taught a course on search and seizure.

"I think the public should be relieved that action has been taken," Vitt said. "I think it shows these kinds of actions won't be tolerated within the Police Department."

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Until an illegal search during an undercover drug operation went sour, Vitt said, he did not have any idea what was transpiring within his department.

The arrest, Oct. 6, involved Lees and Black, who entered the home of Nancy Nolan without proper cause. Vitt said he noticed that the several reports, written by every officer who responded, didn't mesh.

Naturally, Vitt discussed the matter with Berridy and asked him to look into it. Vitt said he wondered aloud about the difference in what the officers were saying had happened that night.

Berridy told the chief that there had been inconsistencies in report writing. That set off a warning bell, Vitt said, and everything cumbled quickly after that.

"It seemed like there was a lot of these rumblings that seemed to surface," he said. "That was part of the reason for the investigation to begin."

What the investigation found was appalling, but not necessarily surprising, to everyone involved. The final report details "a lack of truthfulness" on Berridy's part, where a few months earlier Vitt had praised Berridy's honesty.

The allegations include Berridy's inadequate records of narcotics, inappropriate romantic involvement with female recruits and one of the department's officers and general dishonesty.

He was also supposed to supervise Black's work as a K-9 officer. Her indiscretions under his leadership include misuse of Kato, falsified police reports and failure to turn in drugs used to train the dog.

No criminal charges were filed, and both resigned. Dawn Lees, with whom Berridy earlier had a romantic affair, was suspended for three days for her involvement in the bungled drug arrest. Vitt decided not to fire her because he said her mistakes were from inexperience.

That was not the case for Berridy or Black, who do not want to talk about the investigation.

"They don't want to talk to the press," said Jim Thompson, president of the West Central Florida Police Benevolence Association. "I'm not sure they even knew they were making mistakes. That's the point here. Things just go on, and sometimes that becomes the norm."

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Berridy and Vitt often were so busy with their separate duties, they had to go out to lunch just to catch up. Vitt did not socialize with Berridy after hours, but said he enjoyed the close working relationship they shared.

DiGiovanni acknowledged that Vitt may have put too much trust in Berridy as his assistant chief. But he said he has complete confidence in the chief's ability to stay in touch with what is happening in his department.

"There is always a delicate balance between being involved in the day-to-day operations and allowing your supervisors to supervise," DiGiovanni said. "Is it always foolproof? No. Do things fall through the cracks? I think, in this case, they did."

Vitt said he thought Berridy was telling him everything about the officers and the work they were doing. In reality, Vitt thinks Berridy was filtering the problems.

"Since this has happened, there seems to have been a barrier between them and myself that has been removed," Vitt said. "When they (officers) came (to Berridy) and said so-and-so is a problem, they were told, "I'll take care of it. Keep it quiet."

His entire staff, he said, was taught to follow a chain of command, which meant taking problems to their direct supervisors, then to Berridy. Vitt comes last.

"I don't encourage people to jump the chain of command unless absolutely necessary," he said.

Vitt does not think what Berridy did was part of a calculated plan to deceive him. He feels that Berridy still respects him as a leader.

"I'm not second-guessing myself or my ability to judge people," Vitt said. "I think we've got some good officers. Any police department or sheriff's office made up of people will eventually have problems."

Among other duties, Berridy handled internal investigations, computer work, purchasing, use of the drug grant, evidence collection, investigators and background checks on prospective employees.

"We all have to be held accountable for our actions," Vitt said. "When you look at the things he's accused of, whether he intended to hurt anybody, he intended to do the things he did. I don't think he set out to hurt anybody. I think it would have been more evident if he did."

But much of the time, Vitt relied on Berridy -- and Berridy alone -- for feedback on the department's progress.

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Even while the inquiry into the drug bust was going on, Vitt held Berridy in high regard. In all categories on the evaluation in Berridy's personnel file, the assistant chief rates the highest in everything but punctuality. That was the norm in evaluations every year since Berridy was hired in December 1983.

"Chuck is a knowledgeable, trustworthy employee who was elevated in rank this year," Vitt wrote. "We need to continue to work toward re-assigning the workload to assure that Chuck has the proper time to devote to that which is his job description."

He was named assistant chief Dec. 17, 1994, for a probationary period of six months. On June 17, Vitt recommended Berridy be made the permanent assistant chief.

The recommendations in Berridy's personnel file are shining. All his former supervisors characterize Berridy as a loyal employee. The only blemish in the record is that he appears to have been dismissed from the Metro-Dade Police Department after three years there for reasons that are not specified in his file.

Before Berridy officially became Vitt's assistant, he performed tasks with that rank in mind. Vitt wrote on a Dec. 7, 1994, evaluation that Berridy already assisted in budget planning and scheduling.

A letter from Golden Beach police Chief Stanley Kramer from September 1983 paints the picture that Vitt saw throughout his relationship with Berridy: "Sgt. Berridy has shown himself to be a most reliable and dedicated employee. ...I am positive he will beome one of the most loyal, trustworthy and cooperative employees."

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Berridy was responsible for doing background checks on prospective officers, of which Lees was one. At the time she was being considered, she had been one of Berridy's students and still was romantically involved with him.

Vitt did not find out about their involvement until the investigation began late last year. Berridy gave a sworn statement that he was involved with Lees about 60 days into her employment.

It was one instance that shows how much weight Berridy had in the hiring process: Vitt was wary of her lack of experience since she was being hired to become a narcotics investigator.

"He indicated to me this was the ideal person," Vitt said. "I don't know of any of the other officers who have made the kind of mistakes we investigated. We're better now than we were six months ago."

But the department is on the road to recovery. Vitt is meeting with DiGiovanni regularly to figure out who, if anyone, might fill Berridy's shoes. Vitt is determined that the bad has been dissolved, and that he will have tighter reins next time.

"Things, I believe, will be quiet again," Vitt said. "There's no reason we can't settle down. When you have a cancer, you cut the whole thing out. You can't leave any."