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Largo chief explains scandal's growth

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Police officers will no longer be allowed to ride in their vehicles with members of the youth Explorers program who are of the opposite sex, police Chief Jerry Bloechle said at Tuesday's City Commission meeting.

The new rule was made in the wake of a report that revealed a handful of police officers had inappropriate relationships with youth Explorers for several years in the 1990s. Dismayed over the embarrassment the investigation into the Explorers program has had on the city, commissioners ordered Bloechle to explain to them what measures the department would take to make sure such activity doesn't happen again.

Bloechle has been criticized by city officials and some residents in recent weeks for his handling of the situation. The chief acknowledged he erred last year by not thoroughly investigating claims made in a suicide note from Officer John Ferraro that other officers were having relationships with Explorers.

On Tuesday, Bloechle said he decided not to conduct a full-blown investigation because many officers were distraught after Ferraro's suicide, saying the department was in "crisis." Bloechle said another factor in not further investigating was his belief that there were not enough specifics in Ferraro's suicide note.

Still, Bloechle admitted he should have investigated the matter further.

"If I had it to do over again, hindsight being 20-20, I would do it differently," he said.

Bloechle also said the department would assign a captain as a supervisor of the program.

The chief, dressed in his navy blue uniform, made a 20-minute presentation in which he calmly laid out how the allegations surfaced and the findings were reached. Bloechle noted several times during his remarks that there were no findings of inappropriate behavior since 1994.

Commissioners showed their support for Bloechle.

"I do have full faith in you and it's fully deserved," said Commissioner Mary Laurance.

Commissioner Marty Shelby said the commission and other city officials should share in the responsibility of keeping the department free of inappropriate activity.

"It's your job, chief, and your job, city manager, and our job to make sure that we will not tolerate a breach of trust, and I think this is a good start," he said.

About two dozen residents stayed for the presentation, which began at 9:08 p.m., near the end of the meeting.

The report, released May 5, found three current officers had sexual relationships with Explorers. Investigators also discovered during the 1{-month inquiry that two current officers did not report rumors or facts about improper behavior to supervisors.

A disciplinary review board will investigate the findings of the report and will recommend if any action should be taken against the officers. That recommendation will be sent to the chief.

The investigation into the program began after a television reporter asked to see a file that detailed allegations from a former Explorer who said she had sexual relations with two officers.

Before Bloechle's presentation, Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce officials praised the chief, saying Bloechle's accomplishments during his 20 years in the department easily outweigh the mistake he admits to making in this case.

"I feel very confident (Bloechle) has the necessary skills and leadership to make sure this doesn't happen again," Marc Mansfield, the organization's president, told commissioners.

Others were not as kind in their assessment of the department. One woman said she is moving out of Largo after she claimed police discounted her side in a neighborhood dispute.

"I would expect to see this sort of behavior in Nazi Germany, not in Largo," said the woman, Nancy Labencki.