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Chief guts volunteer police program

Pinellas Park police Chief Dorene Thomas cuts the staff in half and changes the focus from enforcement to support.

The mayor and a council member last month accused some members of a volunteer policing group of being "wild ticket writers" and said the program needed changes.

They got their wish last week. Pinellas Park police Chief Dorene Thomas gutted the program with extensive changes that included cutting more than half the volunteers and eliminating their ticket-writing duties.

The changes brought mixed reactions.

"I'm quite upset the program's being cut back that far," said Bill DeLong, one of the volunteers.

Said Pinellas Park resident Marshall Cook: "It angers me. They were the only ones doing anything about cars parking on sidewalks" and other rule infractions. "It does anger me. It really does."

Former police Chief David Milchan, who oversaw the program's beginnings, said he did not know what happened during the six months he has been gone.

"When I was chief, we did not have any problems with their writing tickets," Milchan said. "They did the job that City Council wanted them to do and everyone wanted them to do. . . . I would hope these changes haven't come as a result of a couple of council members getting angry."

Council members were restrained in their reaction.

"That's her (Thomas') department. She makes the decisions," said Chuck Williams, who volunteers in the department's Communications Center, a job that will continue under the new rules. "She has to run the department and they're part of her department. . . . That was initiated by the police department and it should be controlled by the police department."

But Williams said he was unsure about the wisdom of the changes.

"I don't know," said Williams, who recently urged other council members to hire a volunteer coordinator for the department. "I think that remains to be seen."

Said council member Rick Butler: "I'm not going to second-guess what she wants to do. I ain't going to get involved in the day-to-day operation."

Butler was supportive of the changes, saying, "Definitely, it will solve the problems we were seeing."

Mayor Bill Mischler said: "I still believe in the Volunteers in Policing program. I'm glad she didn't do away with it totally because there are a lot of good parts."

Last month Butler and Mischler complained that some of the volunteers had become overexuberant and should not be writing tickets or engaging in business that belongs to code enforcement.

Mischler launched his original criticism after one volunteer, Cliff Smith, accused the mayor of fixing a ticket that Smith had issued to a Time Warner van that was parked in a residential area.

The father of the van's driver called Mischler to complain. Mischler called a police sergeant, who later rescinded the ticket.

Mischler denied having the ticket rescinded. The police chief cleared Mischler of wrongdoing, saying the sergeant had acted on his own.

Mischler reaffirmed much of his original criticism Tuesday, saying the volunteer program had expanded beyond its original intent. In addition, though most did a great job, a few volunteers had become "overzealous," he said.

As the volunteers' duties expanded, Mischler said, the city attorney's concerns about possible liability increased.

"He mentioned to me, it's a liability ready to happen," Mischler said.

Thomas summarized the changes in a March 15 memo:

There are now 41 volunteers. That will be reduced to a maximum of 20.

"Although we have more than that now, anticipated attrition will reduce the number to the optimal level," Thomas wrote.

"Current volunteers will not be asked to leave the program to reach this desired number."

The city has used four cars for the program. They were marked as "Police Volunteers" and had amber lights on top. Under the changes, there will be only two cars that will be labeled "Volunteers." The amber lights will be removed.

The volunteers currently wear a uniform with a police patch and utility belts, which resemble gun belts. In the future, they'll wear golf/polo shirts and no utility belts.

The duties have included mobile patrol and ticket writing. From now on, they'll no longer issue tickets. Any patrol will be "directed," that is for specific reasons, such as house checks and as extra eyes in certain neighborhoods.

The volunteers also will help conduct speed surveys on busy streets; work at events, such as Country in the Park; deliver items that officers need; and pick up lost/found property.

The changes, Thomas said, will help put the program back on a totally positive footing.

"The volunteers were designed to assist in a positive way," she said. "They've done a super job. . . . They've made a positive impact in the communities. . . . People like seeing them, like talking to them."

DeLong, the volunteer, said he does not plan to resign at this point, preferring to give the changes a chance.

"I'll be interested in doing some of that as long as I'm not sitting around doing nothing," he said. "I'm going to stick with it for a little while and see what direction they're headed in."