Belleair Police Chief Tom Edwards says retirement is not on his radar screen.
BELLEAIR – At each and every Belleair Commission meeting Police Chief Tom Edwards has to deliver the police report. Inevitably, after he is finished the mayor and commissioners congratulate him and his department for keeping things quiet in their community.
The chief will say it is because of the men and women who work with him and the community itself. Closer to the truth is the fact that Edwards is a good fit for the job.
Nearly 7 years ago Edwards was hired as chief in Belleair after a 33-year career with the St. Petersburg Police Department. It was a career that gave him the experience needed to take over a small department and provide the varied services that the town required.
His career began quite differently than it would today.
“I was hired in 1972 as a probationary police officer, but attended both the police academy and the fire academy,” he said. “Each course was 3 months long and we were a small group, just 10 of us, and included was Goliath Davis who later became the Chief of the St. Pete P.D.”
The unusual arrangement was started by then-Chief J.P. Morgan, who was hired from New York City. Edwards and the others in his class acted as both police officers and firefighters.
“We did arson investigations and fire inspections,” he said. “We also did security inspections mainly in businesses and hotels. We tried to show them ways to improve their security.”
And it seemed there was nothing they weren’t called upon to do.
“We patrolled the streets as additional police officers and in the trunks of our cars we had our full fire gear so if necessary we helped fight fires in full gear,” he said.
Two years later Morgan left and the special unit was disbanded. The 10 members were given a choice to either become police officers or firefighters; all 10 chose the police department.
Edwards then got a closer look at the seedier side of life.
“I went into a specialized street crime unit in plain clothes,” he said. “At the time there were a series of robberies with homeless people the victims. We would use one of our officers as a decoy and catch the bad guys when they approached. We did the same in cases of sexual batteries and burglaries.”
From there Edwards moved to vice and narcotics and it brought no end of excitement and danger to his life.
“At one point I headed up a special task force that investigated prostitution, pornography and money laundering. I
worked the first case of racketeering in Pinellas County. We closed all the pornography places that existed at the time.”
And he recalls a “first,” breaking a case that could have had dire consequences.
“Late one night someone stole radiological material from outside a hospital. It was used to treat certain patients and it was dangerous material. Through a confidential informant I was able to find out who had the stuff then, undercover, I met him, and was able to buy back all 18 containers and everything was safe. It is the only case I know of like that.”
In addition to all that Edwards also worked in sex crimes and gambling. Eventually he went back into uniform and into training young officers and ultimately was promoted first to sergeant then to lieutenant.
Finally it was time to retire, even though he was only in his early 50s.
“I had been working in south St. Pete for a long time and you got so many calls where people had been shot or stabbed and injured. There was so much violence,” he said. “I just wanted to go ahead and take a break from that. It is nice to be able to step back and get away from that.”
The first thing he did after retiring as a police officer was take a job as the assistant director of code enforcement with the city of St. Petersburg. He remained a reserve police officer during that time.
Then he heard about the opening for chief in Belleair.
“I didn’t know much about the area, I had worked only one case here regarding a number of employees at the Belleview Biltmore involved with drugs,” he said. “During the arrests I overheard one guy talk about killing someone. We eventually discovered that he was wanted for murder in another state so we got him for that.”
As Edwards was thinking about applying for the chief’s job he took a drive around Belleair and what he saw impressed him.
“It looked like a nice quiet community to work in,” he said. “And the rec center was good because if you have children playing and active in sports you will have a lower crime rate.”
After that Edwards said he met with Town Manager Micah Maxwell and discovered they thought alike when it came to his duties.
“If the mayor or commissioners get stopped for a DUI they will be treated the same as anyone else, no preferential treatment, and Micah agreed,” he said.
That didn’t mean his new job came without challenges. Edwards inherited a department with only two officers; the others had all left to join the Sheriff’s Office. He immediately had to rebuild the force and find a way to stop the turnover.
“If you bring a young officer right out of the academy you can bet they will be looking around for a larger force which can offer them more in terms of advancement and experience,” he said. “So I looked for people who had police experience and who might have been retired and who had done all that.”
As a result the Belleair police force has very little turnover and Edwards is proud of the fact that each officer brings a unique skill that can help the department. One man is a former traffic homicide investigator, another, a crime scene specialist.
The man who hired Tom Edwards, Town Manager Maxwell, says it was a good move.
“He’s been a real benefit,” he said. “When he was hired we had to rebuild the department and he came in here and put together a team and it has worked out really well. He’s got the experience and knows who to call, who to talk to and how to deal with things to get the job done.”
“He made command decisions with the St. Pete police department; his background was exactly what we wanted,” said Mayor Gary Katica. “He really had to start from scratch and he set up a great police force.”
Edwards, who is 63, and his wife Cindy, are both from Pinellas County. They have been married for 33 years and have two adult children who both live in the county – a daughter who is a cardiac nurse and a son who is a child services investigator with the Sheriff’s Office.
He said he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“No, retirement is not on the radar. I thoroughly enjoy working in Belleair; it is a great community for people to live in and for us to work in. I want to stay longer. Look how active the mayor is at nearly 80 years old. We have a very good working relationship and there is virtually no divisiveness in this community. I enjoy the community involvement here.”