The Pinellas Park Police Department dispatched a dozen officers to Panama City Beach on Oct. 12 to help out with recovery efforts after the devastation of Hurricane Michael. A week later, another twelve replaced them.
But when the group returned Oct. 25, they brought back a problem.
The next day, someone lodged a complaint of "potential misconduct" against the officers who helped out in the Panhandle. That led police officials to launch an internal affairs investigation on Oct. 31.
Capt. Brian Unmisig said the inquiry concerns "several officers," but he could not say how many this early in the investigation, much less name them.
"We’ve yet to interview an officer," he explained. "Until we have had some communication with them, we can’t tell what their role is."
Some public works department employees accompanied the police to Bay County, but they are not under investigation, he said.
Unmisig said legally he could not disclose what the complaint was or who it came from, but it is an administrative complaint, not a criminal one. That means the officers involved are not being placed on leave, paid or unpaid, while investigators question them about what happened.
When Hurricane Michael slammed into Mexico Beach on Oct. 10, it was a major Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, making it the third-strongest storm to ever hit the United States. Panama City, which lies 23 miles west of Mexico Beach, was hit hard. Panama City Beach, which is 10 miles further along the coast, was not as badly damaged. It thus became a staging area for rescue workers and evacuees.
The officers who went to Panama City Beach were initially assigned to guard a food distribution center there, Unmisig said, "but then it became an all-hands-on-deck situation. There were a lot of different duties that needed to be done."
Responding to a request from the State Emergency Operations Center, 12 members of the Pinellas Park Police Department and three members of the city’s public works division were sent to Bay County to support emergency response efforts.
According to the agency’s Facebook page, the officers provided 24-hour security to a mobile food preparation and distribution site, which in one day handed out more than 16,000 hot meals to residents of Bay County.
The 24 officers who went to the Panhandle were all volunteers, coming from all divisions within the department, the captain said. When the department dispatches officers to help with emergency management, Unmisig said, it wants to make sure there are enough personnel left to still provide law enforcement services to the city.
The investigation will likely take several weeks, the captain said, but promised that once it’s done the department will issue a report on the findings and announced what, if any, punishment was handed down.
Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.