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Report coming on police chief's conduct
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Photo by BRIAN GOFFBelleair Police Chief Tom Edwards outside the Police Department. Edwards has been accused of unethical conduct.
BELLEAIR – A private investigator’s report into the alleged wrongdoings by Belleair Police Chief Tom Edwards is expected to be completed shortly after Labor Day. Town Manager Micah Maxwell said he had hoped the report would have been in by now but understood why it is taking longer than expected.

“It is not necessarily not on time,” he said. “As with most inquiries there are people to talk to you didn’t realize were there. The more you investigate the more you discover.”

Belleair Police Detective James Howard, the Department’s union representative wrote a letter to Maxwell in July accusing the chief of “actions which I had witnessed and felt were unprofessional, unethical and borderline illegal.”

The letter followed a meeting between Howard and Maxwell over a year ago on July 25, 2013 where Howard outlined his concerns about Edwards’ behavior. In the letter Howard said he wasn’t satisfied with Maxwell’s actions since that time.

“It’s been a year since the initial complaints were made against the Chief of Police and nothing has been done,” he wrote. “The Chief of Police is now empowered to continue with his own agenda knowing there are no consequences.”

Among the complaints outlined against Edwards is that he gets personally involved with troubled females even when other experienced officers are on the scene and capable of handling the matter. In addition the complaint stated that Edwards personally allowed an underage troubled female to go on the ride-along alone with a male officer on two separate occasions; according to Howard that is a practice that is frowned upon by law enforcement authorities.

Howard also accused Edwards of bullying him in an interview when he discovered that Howard had complained about him. Lieutenant Bill Sohl was also at that meeting.

“I explained to both the Chief of Police and Lieutenant Sohl that this is not the proper way of handling complaints,” he wrote. “Since that meeting there has been a strained relationship between myself and both Lieutenant Sohl and the Chief of Police which has been noticed by all Belleair Police Department employees.”

Another complaint outlined in the letter is that Edwards micromanages the department: that he ordered officers to give traffic tickets and took away their discretionary ability to give warnings instead, that he got involved in the police appointee to the police Pension Board when it was none of his concern, that he attempted to limit the work undertaken by a pregnant female officer, and that he got involved in recovering stolen goods.

Howard’s letter states that it all adds up to creating poor morale on the force.

“We were hired because of the professionalism, honesty and integrity we bring to the town of Belleair,” he wrote. “We do not want to be affiliated with potential lawsuits or embarrassment.”

Howard urged Maxwell to hold a confidential vote of confidence in Edwards.

Maxwell responded to the complaints by hiring Russell Hamilton, an attorney in Port St. Lucie, to investigate the charges. Maxwell said Hamilton has a background in labor work on both sides of the issue.

When asked if the complaints against Edwards amount to a labor-management issue, Maxwell said the issue hasn’t gone beyond the local level.

Maxwell said the matter is not under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Edwards said he’ll have something more to say after the investigator’s report is released.

“I am confident that the report will provide an accurate reflection of my actions and that they were appropriate,” he said.

Maxwell said he expects the report to be complete by the day after Labor Day, but if it takes longer he isn’t concerned.

“He (Hamilton) has to look at many different things,” he said. “He has to talk to anyone who has an opinion.”

As for himself, Maxwell said he has to keep an open mind on the matter.

“I’m trying to stay as open-minded as possible; it is what I’ve committed to everybody to look at it with an unbiased eye,” he said. “I have no indication what might be in the report. I’m the person who ultimately is going to have to make some decisions regarding the matter so I let them handle what has to be handled.”

Right now, said Maxwell, everybody remains at work and it is business as usual at the Belleair Police Department.
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