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Gadgets afford air of authority

Looking to exude an air of authority at the next political rally you attend? Try bringing your walky-talky.

Last June, Tampa police arrested three chanting, sign-waving protesters at a George W. Bush rally at Legends Field. The charge: trespassing. But the protesters _ Sonja Haught, Jan Lentz and Mauricio Rosas _ wonder why they were asked to leave at all.

Mark Ober, the county's top prosecutor, had some of the same questions. As he was investigating whether to take the case against them to court, he got a letter from Gregory Mertz, the special agent in charge of the Secret Service office in Tampa.

To support the arrests, Mertz cited what he called a "very similar" case that was 30 years old. In it, a Florida appeals court held that police were right in arresting a protester with an anti-racism sign at a George Wallace rally.

The problem: The Wallace protester tried to force his way back in after being removed. The Bush protesters were hauled off the field after peacefully entering the event.

"It had no bearing on the case at hand, no significance," Ober said. After personally investigating the Legends Field arrests, Ober dropped charges last year.

"There is no one that had lawful authority to tell them to leave," Ober said.

And now for the useful fashion accessory. Ober said in making the arrests, "police believed they were being instructed by the Secret Service and the FBI." In reality, they were taking orders from Republican operatives with walky-talkies that made them look official.

The protesters plan to file a civil rights lawsuit.

FOOTBALL IN SHARP FOCUS: Like a new father, Lt. Paul Driscoll recently extolled the virtues of the city's new big-bucks digital camera system to a batch of reporters.

Three of the four cameras are attached to helicopters for the Tampa Police Department, Driscoll said, and their images are so clear they were good enough to be used by ABC television's Monday Night Football.

Monday Night Football?

Shortly after getting the new camera system about two years ago, Driscoll wanted an outside critique of the video's quality.

So he called Monday Night Football a day or so before a game and offered up the camera's aerial services for free.

He says they scoffed, but offered to take a look at whatever shots his crew got during the game. With Driscoll on the ground watching a monitor, a police flight crew took up a helicopter and fed video to ABC.

ABC apparently liked what they saw. So much, Driscoll recalled, that they used nine shots, including the game and their own blimp flying beneath the helicopter. They even gave the police department a plug during the game.

And Driscoll felt better.

"It was kind of like quality assurance," he said.

A FITTING FAREWELL: He was a baseball fan to the very end.

Tampa reserve Maj. Billy Schimmenti, 45, was watching a Little League game last week when he suffered a heart attack and died.

Described as a gentle man with a sense of humor, he will be missed by colleagues at the Tampa Police Department, where he donated thousands of hours of his time, as well as those at Tampa Fire Rescue, where he worked as a master mechanic.

Those who knew him say Billy would have been pleased with the song played at the end of his funeral service Monday, one that brought both smiles and tears.

It was Take Me Out To The Ballgame.

_ Amy Herdy can be reached at 226-3386 or herdysptimes.com, and Christopher Goffard can be reached at 226-3337.

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