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As his tenure wanes, a police chief reflects

Don't plan his going-away party just yet.

Yes, Largo police Chief Lester Aradi announced this week that he is interviewing with another department outside of Chicago. But nothing is settled.

"I'm being extremely selective," said Aradi, 54, who came to the city five years ago this month from Buffalo Grove, Ill. "I've only sent out one application, and if it's not a good fit, I may be here for several months."

Regardless, the chief says his phone has been ringing constantly with well-wishers and people urging him to stay. To all, Aradi explains that he needs to be closer to family. Two of his three adult children live in the Windy City, as do members of his wife's family.

"I've spent 32 years as a workaholic," he says, "And at some point, I have to wake up and go, "Either I walk completely away from this profession and spend a lot of time with the kids while there's still an opportunity, or I make some adjustment where I can do both.' "

He's choosing the latter.

On Friday, Aradi fielded questions on a variety of subjects, from the state of the department to drug-induced crime to his favorite Largo restaurant and his missing mustache.

Why did you shave off your mustache this year? (He had worn one since age 20.)

My wife and I saved up the money, and we did one of these all inclusive two-week trips to Italy and I said, "Let me see what I look like now. It's turning gray. Let me shave it off. If I don't like it, I can grow it back, and by the time I get back to work, it's back again." I shaved it off and (my wife) said, "Keep it off." Then, when I get back, all of a sudden it became like a vote, with people saying, "I like it better with it on," or "I like it better with it off." But, ultimately, I have a boss and she said, "Keep it off."

Would you support a formal ban on adultery among department employees, like the one Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats has issued?

I think we have policies in place that address that without the specific language. I applaud Jim Coats on what he's saying here. He's sending a message out. Perhaps down the road, we'll look at that as well.

How significant are drugs, specifically crack cocaine, in fueling other crime in the city?

Very significant, I would say. I think during the first two years, possibly three years, when we looked at the homicides that took place in Largo, they were all drug related. Home break-ins were drug related. And by homicides, I don't want the public to get a perception that they were in jeopardy, but a lot of the homicides were drug dealers on drug dealers or drug users on drug dealers. It always seemed to have a connection.

Besides the people you've met, what will you miss most when you leave Largo? You can't say "the people."

Yes, I can say the people. It's all about people. This job is all about people. It's the internal people in this organization. It's the people within the overall city. I can't think of anything else other than the people.

These days, how much does a police chief have to act like a politician?

A great deal, yet you need to separate yourself from the actual political process. But, like a politician, you need to get out in the community. You still need to instill public confidence in what you're doing.

What's your favorite restaurant in Largo?

There's a particular sandwich shop on Ulmerton Road (Kathy's Deli) that's run by an ex-New York City police officer. Great sandwiches, and it's a good place to meet other firemen and Pinellas County deputies and talk about issues.

How has the relationship between the Police Department and city administration changed over your tenure?

I don't think it has. I've been blessed. You know, everybody has a honeymoon period and despite budgetary concerns and other political issues, I'm still in my honeymoon.

Do you have a farewell message to the citizens of Largo?

Yeah, I'm not leaving yet. I have one iron in the fire right now, and it's far from a done deal. Everybody's signing my goodbye card, and I may be around here for a while.

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