Beach Police Department needs overhaul

Anyone who cannot see that the City of St Augustine Beach Police Department’s days are numbered, simply isn’t paying attention — at the very least, a complete top-to-bottom overhaul is needed to create an agency that benefits the community rather than hamstrings it with potentially devastating liability.

In a thinly-veiled power struggle, laced with innuendo, false accusations and character assassination, Historic City News reporters have observed what can only be described as ineptitude, carelessness, false bravado, and juvenile finger-pointing by elected officials, highly placed political appointees, and self-serving members of a clandestine clique who want to play a high-stakes game of cops-and-robbers at the taxpayer’s expense.

At the very core of any argument to sustain a police agency at all, is a claim to better protect the residents and visitors of the city than would otherwise be afforded if the department did not exist.

The City of St Augustine Beach is situated within the jurisdictions of St Johns County as well as the State of Florida. There are easily a dozen other professional, certified policing agencies with law enforcement responsibility for the 1.9 square-miles that comprise the city’s corporate limits. The only thing that state and county law enforcement officers do not enforce at the beach are local city ordinances — those regulations are the responsibility of code enforcement officers or others under the jurisdiction of the office of the chief of police as described in the city charter.

The last brouhaha has brought scandal and shame on the department, its members, former employees, and present employees; the bulk of which would make good content for two or three episodes of Peyton Place — or Jerry Springer.

The current mayor, Gary Snodgrass, and vice-mayor, Rich O’Brien, have risen above the personalities involved; facing what some would call an unpleasant duty, but clear obligation, to protect the 6,200-resident community — and to do so while being good stewards of the public treasury.

As a “case in point” when government makes bad decisions for their own constituents, the mother of St Johns County Commissioner-Elect, Bill McClure, was involved in a traffic crash involving a St Augustine Beach Police Officer earlier this year.

Dr. Paula McClure Stowell, was traveling on SR-A1A, in the right-hand lane, when she encountered a beach police officer, in a marked patrol vehicle, operating at a high rate of speed — weaving in and out of normally congested traffic.

As the officer cut back, from the left lane into the right, he slammed into the left-front quarter-panel of the victim’s 2008 Lincoln Mark VIII. She attempted evasive action; but, due to the officer’s speed (estimated to be about 80 m.p.h.) and his erratic driving, the crash could not be avoided.

If he was responding to a legitimate call, he did not have on his emergency lights or siren to warn other drivers.

The collision occurred on SR-A1A close to the police department and city hall.

The officer’s reckless driving resulted in $1,600 worth of damage to Dr. Stowell’s vehicle. Thankfully, she suffered no medical injuries that I am aware.

When asked to pay for the cost of the repairs, the police department and City of St Augustine Beach refused — to our continued amazement, they decided to hire a Jacksonville attorney, paying tens of thousands of dollars in legal cost to defend against paying for the $1,600 worth of damage.

According to McClure, his seventy-year-old mother had to drive the damaged car because she feared fixing it would somehow be held against her in the small claims court lawsuit.

The costs of mediation, depositions, interrogatories, and a trial, were substantial. In the end, Dr. Stowell was rightfully awarded all damages and attorney’s fees, as well as additional compensation for delay in having her car repaired.

The decision of the City of St Augustine Beach to litigate a $1,600 claim for damages caused by the reckless operation of city police vehicle seems beyond the realm of good stewardship.

“I’m not sure who made the decision to go to trial, on what appeared to be an open-and-shut case, but I don’t agree with it,” Commissioner-Elect McClure told Historic City News. “If I were a St Augustine Beach taxpayer, I would be furious over the poor judgment shown in this situation.”

Historic City News has endorsed Rich O’Brien for re-election Tuesday to another four-year term; we recommend the actions taken by O’Brien, Snodgrass, and Commissioner Andrea Samuels to marshal through the overhaul of the police department, reducing its areas of responsibility, eliminating those who perform poorly, and taking whatever steps are necessary to accomplish the highest possible level of integrity and accountability for the actions of its officers.

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