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Storms interrupt introduction

Steve Burch planned to start his new job as Crystal River police chief by easing into life in Citrus County. He wanted to talk with community members to find out their concerns, explore the coastal areas to find a house and meet with other local officials. It didn't happen quite the way he hoped.

As Burch puts it, "two uninvited guests arrived" to Florida, changing his plans. First, Frances bludgeoned the east coast and meandered across the state. Then, Ivan threatened the Gulf Coast.

Just days after Burch started work Aug. 30, plywood went up over the windows of his office for storm protection. Burch and his officers fanned out into the community to help residents weary from the wind and rain as well as the food and gasoline shortages. His first meetings with county officials came at briefings at the Emergency Operations Center.

"(The storms) sidetracked and put aside many things I hoped to get started on," he said.

Before his first day at the department, the 49-year-old e-mailed his biography and asked all employees to send him theirs, along with suggestions for ways to improve the department and the department's strengths.

But instead of starting with these assessments, he spent his time dealing with the storm and dispelling rumors the Police Department abandoned residents during Frances and that there was a string of burglaries during the storm. Both are untrue, he said.

"Human life is important," he said, explaining why officers moved to higher ground during the storm. "We were here."

Burch came to Crystal River from Pinellas County, where he worked as an officer at the Clearwater Police Department for 24 years, one year before the current chief, Sid Klein, arrived at the department.

During his time with the department, Burch, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of South Florida and an MBA from Florida Metropolitan University, got a taste of several areas of law enforcement.

He worked in community policing, a type of policing that focuses on adapting policing efforts according to community needs and forming close ties between residents and police departments. He served as field training officer. He volunteered to serve in North Greenwood, an area with a high crime rate in order to decrease crime there. He helped the department secure about $800,000 in funding by writing traffic safety grants.

Burch flexed his leadership abilities in Clearwater's traffic division. He was a traffic sergeant and a lieutenant, commanding the section _ a particularly important area for Clearwater _ for six years. Burch led several traffic death investigations, including two complicated hit-and-run cases that resulted in five arrests. "Traffic is the No. 1 issue in our town," Klein said.

Colleagues and supervisors described Burch as a no-nonsense man who will make sure officers and community members are pleased with the department's actions and do his best to ensure his employees are satisfied with their jobs.

"I think you're going to be, as a community, pleasantly surprised," Klein said.

Clearwater Sgt. Robert Wierzba worked with Burch for 17 years. "He's a really great guy," Wierzba said. "He's one of the best supervisors I've ever worked with."

Klein served as a mentor to Burch, helping him hone his leadership skills. When he thought the time was right, Klein helped Burch look for a chief's position.

"He's ready," Klein said. "He's certainly eager and ready to go."

Burch won several awards during his service in Clearwater, Klein said, including a 2004 recognition by the Clearwater Civitans for his traffic safety initiatives and the 1998 J. Stannard Baker Award for Highway Safety, given by the largest police organization in the world, the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"He was one of the most highly decorated officers in the Clearwater department," Klein said.

Klein also said Burch is prepared for the political squabbling seen in Crystal River in recent years. "I think he's a good politician," Klein said. "But he knows how to stay out of politics."

Burch's promotion to a police chief position is not uncommon for officers from the Clearwater department, Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said. Burch is the 10th Clearwater officer since Klein started 23 years ago to become a chief at another department. Shelor said the department is proud of its reputation for shaping new leaders.

"You won't get that from NYPD or LAPD," he said.

Now that the plywood is off, Burch is starting to settle into life in Crystal River. He and his wife, Linda, and his father-in-law will move to Citrus County soon. He already has checked out local antique stores in search of World War II memorabilia and antiques to add to his collection.

He also has started to go into neighborhoods to meet with residents about their concerns. So far, he'll focus on traffic safety and curbing drugs in Copeland Park. Community members are welcome to meet with him anytime, he said.