Largo Police Chief John Carroll, left, will leave the department next month and pass the reins to current Deputy Chief Jeff Undestad, shown right.
LARGO – The imminent retirement of Chief John Carroll, ending his 33-year career with the Largo Police Department, has been a long time coming.
In fact, even when he took the department’s top position in June 2010, succeeding Lester Aradi as he retired, Carroll had an end date set, due to pension considerations set in motion seven years ago while he was deputy chief.
“Since then, I’ve been consciously preparing for transition and succession,” said Carroll, 54.
Deputy Chief Jeff Undestad, 48, will take over responsibility of the department Sept. 7. The way he tells it, Undestad has been following the chief up the ranks since he joined the department in 1990, and Carroll acted as his first field-training officer.
“Through my entire career as well as his, every time he had a promotion, shortly thereafter, I’d be promoted,” Undestad said with a laugh.
Carroll said he’s pleased to be leaving the department gracefully, on the “high” of receiving accreditation with excellence from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Aug. 3, one of only a small handful of agencies to earn the distinction. The department has prepared for the transition, he added.
“It’s nice to hand the reins to Jeff and to know that things are running well,” Carroll said. “The reputation of officers and the cases they work and the service they provide is, to me, exemplary, and it’s nice to be associated with that.”
A legacy of consistency
Undestad said his overall goal will be keeping the department running as well as it has under Carroll.
“He’s created quite a legacy here. He’s a modest man (and) won’t brag about himself, but he’s done a tremendous job for this police department,” Undestad said.
A native of Oswego, New York, Carroll moved to Largo with his family in 1967 and has maintained close ties to his community ever since. After graduating from Largo High School at age 17, he entered the U.S. Army to serve in the military police, knowing he was unable to join a civilian department until he was 21.
He joined the Largo Police Department in 1980 and has worked in patrol, as a detective and as a SWAT team commander, gradually working his way through every rank except sergeant.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work on pretty complex investigations. I’ve traveled on homicide cases. I’ve been to the FBI National Academy. I’ve put some bad guys in jail,” Carroll said. “So I have lots of war stories, but through all of those things … it’s all been done as a team, and that’s really gratifying.”
During the eight years as a detective in the crimes against persons unit, Carroll said he worked a number of homicide and sexual battery cases.
“There are people serving prison sentences that will be in jail long after I’m retired,” he said. “The overall
satisfaction of getting a case, working with a victim, helping bring justice and closure to a victim, that’s very important to me.”
He’s always found working in his hometown advantageous, though arresting people in the same community where he lived with his wife and two children, now ages 29 and 26, can be a little awkward, he said.
“I think if you treat people right, you don’t have to worry about that, even if you do have to arrest them,” he said. “I never had any incident. I never lost any sleep over that.”
He became deputy chief in 2002, assuming the responsibility for the operations of the department under Aradi.
“That’s a really, really good foundation for becoming the chief,” Carroll said. “Lester (Aradi) did that for me, and I tried to do that for Jeff.”
Over the years with the department, the city of Largo has grown in population as well as physical size, creating a budgetary challenge for the police department. The city now serves a static population of 75,000, though for the police department, it’s more than that, Carroll said.
“We’re in the middle of a county with a million people in it and everybody drives through Largo to get somewhere else. So we serve a bigger population than 75,000,” Carroll said. “I would say there are times when it seems like, it feels like, it’s double that.”
He added that he did not anticipate having to compete with other city services for funding as the city budget got tighter and tighter over the last several years.
“The challenge was making sure the service got provided and delivered with the shrinking budget,” he said. “It’s a balancing act.”
Carroll said he and his wife of 33 years, Linda, will be enjoying some travel in their joint retirement for the immediate future. After that, they are considering some business ventures, and Carroll said he might enter politics.
“Probably next election season, I’ll look for a seat on city commission,” he said. “My wife tells me I have to have something to do or I’ll drive her crazy. It would be another opportunity to serve.”
As far as his time with the police department, Carroll said he hopes he will be remembered for “just consistent service over a long period of time.”
The new chief
Undestad has a lot of experience in all parts of the organization; he is a skilled collaborator, diplomat, compromiser and independent thinker, Carroll said.
“He cares about people, cares about the employees, cares about the citizens,” he said.
Undestad has never worked for any other law enforcement agency. He started off his career in property management in Minnesota where he grew up. When he realized he would have to earn a second degree in order to become a police officer in Minnesota, an instructor encouraged him to try to get experience in another state first.
Through some connections in Florida, he ended up applying in Pinellas County. Within just months, he was moving his few possessions to Florida to start the police academy.
“As luck would have it, at that time, Largo was going through a pretty significant hiring,” he said. “Everything kind of just fell right into place.”
He never anticipated becoming a police chief. In the beginning years with the department – as he worked as a K9 officer, on the SWAT team, as an evidence technician and for the volunteer program – Undestad was determined to not seek a promotion. But around year eight, he tried out for sergeant and got the position, he said. Then he was promoted to lieutenant, despite his continued determination to not rise through the ranks.
“I had to concede by the time I was given the opportunity to be the deputy chief … knowing that the current chief was on a strict timeline, that yes, my goal here is to become the police chief,” Undestad said.
He said he hopes to gradually increase the department’s number of sworn officers beyond its current force of 137.
“My intent is to come in as chief and evaluate the department for the first year, because there’s really no need for changes. There’s nothing broken, nothing that needs to be fixed,” he said.
He said he would like to reinstate some of the public outreach programs the department has cut due to budget concerns. Those targeted to children are especially important to him.
He sees the department’s ongoing battle against pedestrian traffic fatalities and the recent increase in gang activity as ongoing challenges.
He also pointed out an increase in violence against officers on service calls. At the beginning of the year, the department’s had about 10 percent of its patrol officers out on light duty due to injuries related on violence from calls for service.
“(That) is a little alarming to me, especially taking over as chief,” he said.
Undestad and his wife of 10 years, Michelle, have two boys, ages 5 and 7. They live on the border between Largo and Clearwater.
“I love my kids, and I love to spend as much time as I can with them. This job and location has been to provide that.” Undestad said.
Undestad already has been transitioning to chief over the last five months or so, he said. In preparation, he named current Capt. Brian Brown as the next deputy chief and recently hired a new administrative assistant, a position that has been vacant since May.
“I’ve kind of been doing three jobs,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks where order can be restored in the office up here, and things can get back to normal operation.”
Though he’s been with the department for 23 years, Undestad doesn’t have a retirement date in mind.
“With little kids, I don’t want to be too hasty in picking a retirement date when they’re still in middle school,” he said. “My goal is to keep the department stable and moving forward, and not have to worry about any changes in command for the next few years.”