Police may be barred from Scientology work
05 Jul 2001
St. Petersburg Times

The church pays city officers for off-duty security, which has led to questions about the department's impartiality.


St. Petersburg Times,
published July 4, 2001


CLEARWATER -- Police Chief Sid Klein and interim City Manager Bill Horne may stop allowing uniformed off-duty police officers to work as security guards for the Church of Scientology along Watterson Avenue.

"I think we have reached a point where it would be prudent for our removal of off-duty officers from (Watterson) Alley," Klein wrote in an e-mail to Horne last week.

Horne says that he is "obviously receptive" to that idea, because he understands "there is a sensitivity to the level of police presence, even if they're off duty" at Scientology facilities.

The relationship between police officers and the church has been controversial, with one Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judge warning earlier this year that officers were coming dangerously close to being a private security force for the church.

The Lisa McPherson Trust, a group critical of the church, has accused police officers of becoming biased as a result of their financial relationship with the church. The church has paid off-duty police officers more than $150,000 since January 2000 for providing security daily on Watterson, city records show.

Although there are no immediate plans to remove the officers, Horne said he supports the chief in trying to find other ways to keep the peace downtown.

Church officials have talked with city officials about applying for grant funding to increase foot patrols downtown and eventually pulling back the off-duty officers, said church spokesman Ben Shaw.

"If it occurs," Shaw said, "there would be something else in place that would assure there was similar security for the area."

Watterson Avenue runs alongside a Scientology cafeteria, where members of the church are often getting on or off church buses. It is also about a block from the headquarters of the Lisa McPherson Trust.

The two groups have been in conflict since 1999, trailing each other through downtown with video cameras rolling, rebuking each other in venues from Internet pages to city meetings and complaining to city police about alleged infractions.

As a result of a lawsuit brought by the church, a temporary injunction prohibits members of both groups from coming within 10 feet of each other and designates where each can picket downtown. The church began hiring off-duty police officers for security during the conflict.

Klein defended the practice earlier this year, stating in one letter to the St. Petersburg Times that the officers were necessary to "act as schoolyard monitors" and break up confrontations between the groups daily. Klein argued that the expense of these "babysitting activities" should not be paid by taxpayers and was an appropriate expense for the church.

Klein was on vacation this week and could not be reached.

Police spokesman Wayne Shelor could offer little on the chief's reasoning for considering removing the officers, except to say that the chief's intention has always been to eventually extricate the officers from Watterson.

"He's said this from this beginning," Shelor said. "Things do seem to have settled quite a bit, which is good for everyone involved."

Over the past few months, the trust has continued to write letters to the Clearwater Police Department, objecting to incidents with officers on Watterson.

In April, Mark Bunker of the Lisa McPherson Trust wrote that two officers laughed at concerns raised by trust members. He also said the officers were eating identical meals that appeared to have been provided by the church.

Rob Surette, the Police Department's attorney, responded in May, saying one of the officers had been advised to maintain an impartial demeanor on the street. Meanwhile, Klein revised instructions to all officers doing off-duty work on Watterson.

Among the revisions: Officers must allow people to walk on the sidewalk along Watterson as long they are not picketing, and officers must prepare reports for alleged violations of the court injunction -- whether or not they had seen the incident in question.

The new instructions emphasized that officers are not to accept food or drink from the church.

Lisa McPherson Trust president Stacy Brooks said Tuesday that it would be a relief to trust members if the off-duty officers were pulled back from Watterson.

"It's pretty intimidating to have armed police officers putting their hands to their guns as we walk down the street to our cars in the parking lot," Brooks said.

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