CLEARWATER — The social media comments started a few weeks ago, then only intensified, devolving into what Police Chief Dan Slaughter called a "public relations nightmare."
Following two January episodes of the Emmy award-winning Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath A&E series that focused on Clearwater history, suspicion on Facebook and Twitter rained down on Slaughter's department and its interaction with the Church of Scientology.
Critics attacked the fact Scientology can hire off-duty officers for security like any other local church when it is the only one with a documented policy for destroying enemies' lives. They also criticized Slaughter's cordial public interaction with an organization investigated, though not charged, by the FBI in 2009 in connection with human trafficking.
The attacks prompted Slaughter to take the rare step of posting a video response online and a guest column in the Tampa Bay Times explaining that despite the church's history, he is obligated by law to treat Scientology like any other federally recognized religious organization.
The bulk of more than 300 commenters on the police department's Facebook post of the video only hit harder.
"It looks like Scientology has you and the rest of the force right where they want you. ... in their back pocket," Cindy Doss responded.
The social media frenzy didn't unearth many new details. But it revived incredulity over Clearwater's dynamic with the controversial church: Some see the city as simply coexisting while others see that as enabling.
"We have a long history of doing the right thing," Slaughter said in an interview. "For some reason I've become the microcosm for the last 30 years."
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After arriving under a false name in 1975, Scientology concocted a sex-smear campaign against then-mayor Gabe Cazares and framed him in a hit-and-run. The church also wrote internal memos dictating plans to take over Clearwater and infiltrate government offices. Clearwater Police began gathering intelligence on Scientology in 1979, around the time 11 high-ranking Scientologists were convicted on charges relating to breaking into federal offices in Washington.
Former Chief Sid Klein opened his formal investigation in 1981, but it was closed 13 years later without producing a single charge.
Slaughter said that history is not forgotten, but circumstances are different. The reality of Scientology's status as a federally tax-exempt religious organization since 1993 means he can't treat it any differently from downtown's Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church, which has no record of trying to take over the city.
"We don't get to pick and choose whom we protect and serve, and nor should we," Slaughter said on his Feb. 2 video.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
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After the Jan. 29 Aftermath episode aired, online critics began questioning Slaughter's interaction with Scientology outside of routine police work. They shared a photo of him from a 2015 visit to a Scientology's Foundation for a Drug Free World office. Another from 2018 shows Slaughter at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel standing with parishioners holding awards for community service, which he did not award to them.
"When you appear in an official police uniform for a photo with Scientologists at their Front Group facility this is an official ENDORSEMENT," tweeted former Scientologist Marc Headley over the 2015 photo, which Remini retweeted to her 643,000 followers.
In June 2014, Urban Land Institute consultants said that the "long history of hurt feelings" between downtown's two biggest players was a problem. They urged the city and Scientology to work together to revitalize the struggling downtown. So when he became chief two months later, Slaughter said he decided to accept invitations to appear at events from groups all over the city. Including Scientology.
But in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Remini said an appearance by a police chief at a Scientology event cannot be likened to an appearance at another church. Unlike other religions, Scientology has written policies about manipulating civic circles to gain legitimacy. A 1969 policy dictates how to "build a public image" by going into a community to get seen among "big names" and "get press coverage for every contact."
"When I was in Scientology, that said to me, they must be okay because the police, the governor, the mayor, wouldn't be taking photos with them," said Remini, a former Scientologist who defected in 2013. "It legitimizes them."
Slaughter said he is aware of Scientology's policies but that he had a standard as the new chief to consider all invitations as the city tried to move on from decades of tension. Feedback over the past few weeks, and the community's overwhelming urging in 2017 for the City Council to buy a downtown property Scientology also wanted, has not been lost on him.
"Four years as chief, now going on five, I can be a little more choosy," Slaughter said about public appearances. "I think I'll continue to vet them as I see fit. I wouldn't want to go on the record saying I'm not going to any more Scientology events, but see if you have any more photos in a couple of years to show me."
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Critics also pointed to the Jan. 29 episode's scene, filmed on June 20, where Remini, former Scientology spokesman turned critic Mike Rinder and longtime activist and filmmaker Mark Bunker, sat on a bench in a Scientology-owned park downtown.
Church representatives Sarah Heller and David Gonzalez called police and provided Officer Michael Kontodiakos a 2001 permanent injunction that prohibits Bunker from being on certain church properties.
According to the report, three officers initially responded. When Cpl. Karl Wassmer arrived, he determined the injunction did not apply. Wassmer told Heller over the phone she had to appear to issue a trespass warning, but Heller said she would not, because of the Aftermath cameras, according to the report.
Wassmer cleared the call and Bunker, Rinder, Remini and the camera crew voluntarily left, according to the report.
"The problem is Scientology has figured out how to game the system and how to use (the police) to some extent," Rinder told the Times. "Maybe it's above the police department, where they are so terrified of ever doing anything Scientology is going to come after them for (that even for a) simple call about Mark Bunker sitting on a park bench, whoever the officers are have to call their bosses."
But Slaughter said the call was handled reasonably, with young officers calling a corporal for backup for a delicate situation where cameras were rolling. And after the incident, Slaughter revoked Scientology's affidavit on file that allows police to issue trespass warnings to citizens when a property owner is not able to be present.
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In their scrutiny of the department, critics also alleged that Clearwater Police couldn't be impartial toward Scientology while officers are being paid for working extra duty jobs for the church, as they do other churches and businesses.
Scientology hiring police for off-duty security dates back to around 2000 under Klein, when protests peaked between Scientology and members of the Lisa McPherson Trust, a group formed after a woman died in 1995 after being held in the Fort Harrison Hotel for 17 days.
Today only 3.4 percent of the department's extra duty assignments are for Scientology, Slaughter said. Although he worked extra duty assignments for Scientology in 2000 when he was a detective, Slaughter said it does not taint impartiality.
"I never felt I was going to compromise my own integrity or my own oath for those finances," Slaughter said, adding he never oversaw the extra duty detail in 2000, another allegation being swirled on social media.
Assistant City Attorney Matthew Smith said Slaughter can't forbid his officers from accepting paid off-duty jobs for Scientology while offering the program to other churches.
Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed. But she said an appearance of a conflict is why many departments do not allow officers to work off-duty jobs for any organization within their jurisdiction.
"I don't believe there is actually objectivity when you're paid by someone to do extra work," Haberfeld said.
Klein, who retired in 2010 after 29 years as chief, had a dramatically fraught relationship with Scientology, which included a 1997 protest downtown where thousands of Scientologists chanted "Sid Klein, what's your crime?" His police department helped investigate the 1995 death of McPherson, which led Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe to bring charges he later dropped. Still, Klein said he had to "treat everybody equally" and "Chief Slaughter is doing just that."
"I don't make a determination of what's a religion and what isn't," Klein said. "We have to treat the Church of Scientology just like any other church."
Klein said he concurred with Lt. Ray Emmons' 1983 report stating Scientology was a criminal money-making scheme, but federal officials ultimately never took up the case and it closed in 1994.
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Slaughter said he does not have a formal investigation open into the Scientology institution but investigates complaints as they are reported. He said he has multiple cases open involving Scientologists.
Despite decades of investigative journalism, documentaries and activists that have exposed alleged crimes by Scientology around the world, Slaughter said there is not an overwhelming pattern of allegations that have been filed with his department to build a local case on the organization.
"As we know from history, the Emmons case, they weren't able to get it further than the investigation, they weren't able to get it to a prosecutable point," Slaughter said. "I haven't had anybody come in my front door that's provided us any actionable information that I'm aware of."
Even if there were, it would likely require federal resources.
So that leaves Slaughter, he said, balancing the history of this church and this city, and what he sees as his duty.
"I don't think we forget,'' he said, "but we continue to just do our job and try to be fair."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.