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Zephyrhills selects its new police chief

Russell Barnes, a criminal investigator for the Public Defender's Office in west Pasco, will be the city's next police chief.

City Manager Steve Spina chose Barnes over Clearwater police Capt. Robert Jones, the other finalist out of 67 applicants. The City Council must approve the hiring and will vote at its next meeting Nov. 10.

Spina said he chose Barnes, 51, because of his community-oriented approach to the job.

"Looking over his background stuff, he was very much community-oriented, active in clubs, wrote a newspaper column," Spina said. "I thought that would be a good approach to working through our problems."

Morale at the department has been suffering since the middle of the summer, when Spina asked for the resignation of Chief Jerry Freeman, who had been on the job only nine months.

Spina cited what he termed Freeman's lax supervisory style that led him to doubt Freeman's abilities as a chief. Spina had received complaints about Freeman's habit of kissing female employees and his practice of letting officers bring family members on patrol. The final straw, he said, was a pornography case from February in which evidence and a gun disappeared.

Still, many in the department liked Freeman's informal demeanor, which contrasted with his predecessor's firm rule.

Barnes said Thursday that mending morale will be among his first priorities. He plans to talk with the sworn officers and civilian employees to gauge their feelings about the events of the summer.

"Rather than me waiting around and trying to figure it out, I might as well tap into the knowledge of the people that have been there," he said.

The best way to move forward, Barnes said, is to refocus on the current goals of the department and "get down to some good old-fashioned police work."

Barnes spent six years with the St. Petersburg Police in the 1970s. He rose to the rank of sergeant in the Pinellas Park department, leaving in 1991 to become the chief in Sequim, Wash. He has been with the Pasco Public Defender's Office since 1997.

Barnes was elated at Spina's job offer. He will make in the $60,000 range annually.

He said he was handling a case at work, contacting witnesses, when Spina's call came. He made some calls on another case and then couldn't keep the news inside anymore.

He went to tell his wife, Janice, who works in administration for the county Health Department.

"I said "That's it, I'm going up there.' And I went in and gave her a big kiss," he said.

Barnes lives in unincorporated Pasco, near Port Richey. He plans to move to Zephyrhills.

"It's a very nice town," he said. "I've always enjoyed it."

Barnes said he used to go camping as a teenager on the Hillsborough River and would visit Zephyrhills to buy supplies.

"It has sort of a small-town feel to it, but it still has some of the amenities that you like to have close by," he said.

If approved by the council, Barnes will begin work in mid or late November. He takes over a department with 29 sworn officers and a budget of about $2.5-million. Plans are on track for the department to move into its new 14,000-square-foot station off North Avenue early next year.

Spina said he's confident the welcoming of a new chief will set the city back in the right direction.

"I'm excited," Spina said. "I think this is going to help us all just go forward."

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