“Waiting for the next ax to fall” is how one St. Augustine Beach police officer has described the recent controversies and shake-ups that have included state investigations and subsequent retirement of former chief Richard Hedges, as well as a decision by the city commission to reduce the department by 10 officers at some point, leaving five and one Sergeant with assistance from the sheriff’s office to patrol the 1.9 square mile beach community.
Now, with yesterday’s release of an internal affairs investigative conducted by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, all officers except one have been cleared of charges that they misused department computers in compiling a 70-page letter in May, outlining what they felt were unethical and illegal actions by the former chief. The letter was signed by 10 of the 15 beach police officers.
See allegations letter
Both the State Attorney’s Office and The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) have subsequently cleared Hedges of the allegations. Hedges was put on paid leave at the time of the investigations by the SA Beach Commission, but chose early retirement a few weeks before the findings of the state were released. Hedges announced his retirement June 4, and his attorney, Patrick Canan said Hedges had planned to retire next year anyway.
Canan told First Coast News out of Jacksonville that Hedges made the decision to retire early so “the city could move on.”
According to the SJSO’s South Regional Chief David Messenger – who was also acting chief for a time during the investigation – the internal investigation was done by the SJSO of the officers at the request of the FDLE.
“They contacted us and suggested we should do this just to make sure of if anyone violated policy and who. This was strictly about misuse of computers, and should not be confused with any other type of misconduct or with the state’s investigation,” Messenger said.
Messenger said the beach police department could have conducted the investigation themselves, but doesn’t have an Internal Affairs Department.
SJSO investigation conducted by Sgt. Shawn Lee of SJSO Internal Affairs released yesterday were that only beach police Sgt. Gary Hartshorne was in violation of misuse of the department computers, which Messenger wanted to make clear was the only charge against officers reviewed by the investigation.
New Acting Police Chief (Sgt) Ralph Correa said that Hartshorne was given a letter of reprimand in his file for violating department chain-of-command policies and policies regulating Florida’s crime computer system. He said that no other action was taken against Hartshorne, other than the placement of the letter in his file, and that Hartshorne was still currently on the job. However, the letter to Hartshorne – signed by Carerra – did warn, “Any further misconduct by you can lead to further disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
The SJSO investigation began May 29 and ended in early August.
Other beach officers reviewed in the investigation included Jonathon Helquist, Douglas Woodall, Daniel Carswell, Erin McLerran, Bruce Wyly, Miles Smith, Russell Kelly, David Tiller, Frankie Hammonds and Laurie Lucas.
According to Messenger and Correa, the above officers were exonerated by the investigation, with each signing a form letter for their files which clearly states the change in their status in the investigation from “principle to witness.”
The violation by Hartshorne was described in the report as a teletype printout which included confidential information from the Florida Crime Information Center. Because this was sent out to the city commission members, it then became a public document.
During the investigation, Hartshorne told local press he “took full responsibility for the release of the unauthorized information,” and said he had released it to commissioners and thought those five commissioners were part of the chain of command.
Hartshorne also explained to the St. Augustine Record’s Peter Guinta that he had created a redacted version (with private information blacked out) but “inadvertently” the original version became part of the allegations.
According to the SJSO report, other officers denied ever seeing the seeing the printout.
In an interview today, acting Chief Correa said he felt that in spite of all the shake-ups the department had recently weathered – and the threat to jobs hanging over officers’ heads, he felt morale had improved slightly with his appointment as interim chief.
“They know I understand what we’ve all been through, and what’s happening, and I’ve tried to be there for them. I’ve been telling officers to look after the needs of their families first and if they feel the need to apply to other departments, they have my support. I’m here for them,” said Correa, who is a nine-year veteran of the SA Beach police.
Correa said at this time, there has been no word from the city on when the downsizing of the department might occur.
“This is hard on all of the officers. It’s hard on me. All I know to tell my officers is that I’m here for them,” he said. “Morale is better, but it’s also day-to-day and we have our ups and downs because everyone’s jobs are in limbo while we wait for the city to make a decision.”
One beach officer, who asked not to be named, said the wait to see who would retain their jobs and who would go was making everyone suffer. “It is like an ax or like the old saying, ‘waiting for the next shoe to drop.’ We all have families. We all live around here, and many have extended families in the area. This could mean relocation and uprooting for our families if we lose our jobs. Everyone is being affected by it, but we all just try and keep a good attitude toward the community and do our jobs as always.”
Messenger has said in a previous interview that his deputies already respond to aid beach police and that dispatch calls already go through the SJSO. He said the sheriff’s office would not have any problem with the transition when the SA beach department is downsized.
“Citizens should be assured they will have still have law enforcement at their door when they need us,” he said.
At the recommendation of Mayor Gary Snodgrass – who cited that cutting the department would save “hundreds of thousands of dollars for taxpayers”, the beach commission decided in a 2-3 vote July 16 for the measure, which would retain five officers, one sergeant and seek a new police chief. Commissioners Undine Pawlowski and Brud Helhoski were the dissenting votes.
Snodgrass said at the meeting that his proposed plan was “not about politics,” but what was best in the “long-term” for public safety and a “sound financial future for the city.”
According to figures he presented, the city’s current $1.476 million law per year for the police department would be cut to $752,498 – a savings of around $723,000 per year.
Correa said he himself had not gotten word yet on when the downsizing would occur, but the city would form a committee at some point to review each officer and their files to decide which would be retained.
The search for a police chief is also ongoing, with a private company now hired to advertise for the job and bring about eight of the best applicants to the commission for interviews by October 1.
Snodgrass also said during a recent commission meeting that while law enforcement background and credentials would be important for police chief candidates, having experience as a chief should not be a requirement.
“This is a downsized position, and this needs to be a working chief,” Snodgrass said, adding that a major or sergeant within a department with good recommendations and leadership skills could be considered.
While the initial search, applicant review and subsequent background checks could take from several weeks to a month for each step on the process, according to the mayor, ideally – SA Beach could have a new Police Chief in place by January 1.
Correa – also a former New York City Police Officer prior to coming to St. Augustine Beach – confirmed today that he would be applying for the position as permanent beach police chief.
“I love my department and I love the community. I guess we are all waiting to see what happens, but I’d like the opportunity to continue to serve in this capacity,” said Correa.
He added, “The department needs a new direction, and we all want to move forward once this is behind us. I think I speak for everyone when I say that what is important is getting the department back on track and ensuring the best possible police protection for citizens. I want to assure (citizens) we are out there doing our job and they can continue to have confidence in their local law enforcement.”