In his off time, Clearwater Police Chief Eric Gandy competes in freedive spearfishing, a sport that takes him 80 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico while holding his breath.
”It comes with quite a bit of risk, which is probably the same thing that drives me to this job,” Gandy said. “There’s also the peacefulness of it. You’re completely reliant on yourself.”
But working under pressure is where Gandy has always been comfortable. It’s one of the reasons he has returned to law enforcement after a brief retirement, becoming the city’s 14th police chief on July 29.
Throughout more than three decades with the Clearwater Police Department, Gandy, 56, went for the highest-stakes jobs, like SWAT team commander and K-9 officer. Once, on patrol, he found the victim of a serial killer. With his dog, Dodge, he tracked down a man trying to kidnap a 7-year-old.
In those roles, Gandy has also been a stickler for rules, driven by the research and analytics behind police work, said friends and colleagues. Over the decades, he has written policies impacting the department’s nearly 400 employees, from K-9 protocols to an active assailant response plan.
When he had the chance to work a career that wasn’t so life and death, it didn’t last.
In March 2022, he retired as deputy police chief to begin a job directing the city’s marine and aviation department. It had its own complexities — Gandy negotiated a lease with a new operator for the city’s long-neglected airpark and advanced a multimillion-dollar renovation of the beach marina.
But when then-Chief Dan Slaughter retired in May to become an assistant city manager, Gandy consulted with his wife and adult daughter and decided it was the right time and opportunity to go back.
“I had a lot more to give back to this place,” said Gandy, whose name is familiar to local residents — his forebears built one of the three bridges crossing Tampa Bay.
His interest in the chief’s job prompted City Manager Jennifer Poirrier to skip a state or national search. In June, the City Council passed an ordinance to allow retired police and fire department employees who are rehired as chief to earn a salary and a pension. Although Poirrier did not confirm it was done for Gandy, it was a rule change needed for him to return.
Poirrier considered whether to bring someone from the outside as a change agent but said the department’s reputation in the community is already one of trust, making Gandy “an obvious choice.”
Zeb Atkinson, past president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP, said the department has built relationships with residents over the years to the point that officers can be seen as resources. But, he said, “things can always be better.”
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Earlier this year, a Black man filed two lawsuits, alleging Clearwater police officers racially profiled him when they wrongly arrested him in 2019.
Gandy said he’s confident that the department has a general culture of community trust, but he is looking at ways to improve.
The philosophy comes from his early career in the 1990s, when Gandy worked as a patrol officer in Old Clearwater Bay. His team put a stop to rampant prostitution in the area, mostly by targeting drug houses fueling the cycle.
It was part of the community policing program started by former Chief Sid Klein, who tethered teams of officers to neighborhoods to respond to crime while also getting to know residents.
During the budget cuts of the Great Recession in the late 2000s, the neighborhood teams were phased out, and now officers do outreach in between duties patrolling larger zones.
Gandy said he’s evaluating whether to bring back neighborhood-focused teams.
“I’m old school,” he said. “You have to have outreach, you have to know the pulse of the community. … We take our cues from the community.”
Gandy said he isn’t considering any other changes until he meets with officers and civilian employees to assess what is working.
“I think that input is critical,” he said.
His first news conference as chief came after an Aug. 31 stabbing at Countryside High School in which the 14-year-old suspect was charged with two counts of attempted murder.
But Gandy said Clearwater is a safe city, and the most pressing crime is auto burglaries.
Gandy, who lives in Safety Harbor but grew up in Tampa, said his drive to become a police officer began during childhood when his home off North Florida Avenue was repeatedly burglarized.
“I remember my mom working hard and being devastated when she’d come home and our window would be broken and stuff would be stolen out of the house,” he said. “That stuck with me.”
He graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and was the first in his family to go into law enforcement. But his connection to Tampa Bay runs through generations.
In 1924, Gandy’s great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather built the Gandy Bridge, which links Tampa and St. Petersburg across the bay. His late father, George “Skip” Gandy IV, was an aerial photographer whose life’s work has been digitized by the University of South Florida as a historical record of the region.
As a teenager, Gandy had his pilot’s license and would fly the plane while his father shot photos.
After his early career working patrol, Gandy was promoted to sergeant in 2000 and soon became the K-9 unit supervisor. It allowed him to get to “the next level of going after the worst of the worst.”
Over the years, supervisors described him in similar ways, as someone with enthusiasm, who is collaborative but decisive. In a 2004 evaluation, then-Lt. James Steffens called Gandy “a strong leader who commands through example.”
And as he climbed the ranks from lieutenant to deputy chief, Gandy still went on calls and made occasional arrests to stay in touch with officers.
While SWAT commander in the early 2010s, he implemented a strategy to carry out search warrants called “breach and delay,” which directs officers to order occupants of a room to reveal themselves before rushing into places where they could be ambushed.
It was new at the time, and Gandy said some officers quit the team, arguing the method would give suspects a chance to flush drugs. But Gandy did research and flew in officers from Los Angeles County who had been using it for safer missions. The tactic is still used by Clearwater police.
“He’s calculated like that and he takes the more deliberate approach,” said Michael Sahr, who retired in 2012 as a Clearwater Police major in the patrol division.
Even when Sahr was ranked higher, he liked to talk with Gandy about policies or issues that came up in a training because “he felt like more of a peer because he solved problems.”
Gandy also wrote the city’s marine unit policy in 2011 to revive the team that patrols the waterways after it had been disbanded in the 1980s. It fit with Gandy’s love for the water as a diver, spearfisher and holder of a United States Coast Guard charter license.
When Slaughter promoted him from patrol major to deputy chief in 2017, Gandy said he wasn’t thinking about moving into the chief’s job.
And after the marine and aviation director job opened last year, he liked the idea of solving problems related to marinas or airpark operations, instead of showing up in the worst moment of somebody’s life.
Saša Bratic, a longtime friend who dives with Gandy in the ocean, said he wondered if the change of pace would stick. He said Gandy walks a “very, very, very straight line in life,” part of why he’s such a dependable friend to his close circle.
“I said, when you stop being a cop, you have to break one law, like speed for the first time in your life,” Bratic said.
But Gandy said the return to police work just felt right.
“It feels like I didn’t leave,” he said.