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Schiavo incidents left city’s police officers ‘exhausted’
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Chief Doreen Thomas displays placards from Terri Schiavo demonstrations.
PINELLAS PARK – Police officers were threatened, degraded and even had a price put on their heads last spring during the Terri Schiavo demonstrations at Woodside Hospice.

Chief Doreen Thomas, who came up through the ranks from patrol officer to chief, and her staff created a slide presentation that details the entire 14-day period of the Schiavo ignominy.

Just recently the presentation was encored before the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

“Our officers were physically and emotionally exhausted from working 12-hour shifts to keep peace at the facility,” Thomas said.

Schiavo died 14 days after her feeding tube was removed. Last spring's demonstrations, however, were not the first at Woodside Hospice on 102nd Avenue.

“There were incidents in 2001, 2003 and between Feb. 23 and April 18 of this year,” Thomas said.

Police were spat upon, verbally abused and forced to put their personal beliefs aside to make professional decisions. Dispatchers, too, took their share of verbal abuse.

One Web site even called for the murder of officers at the hospice site.

Fifty-three people were arrested. One woman remained at the facility long after everyone went home.

Thomas is a product of Jersey City, N.J. She is a 24-year U.S. Navy Reserve veteran who earned degrees from St. Petersburg College and Florida State University. She earned a master's degree from Golden Gate University's satellite program at MacDill AFB.

Her first taste of police work came in 1978 at St. Pete Beach. Five years later she joined Pinellas Park force.

“I was the first woman officer and the first woman chief of police,” she said. “There are 12 female officers today.”

Though barely 5 feet tall, Thomas has experienced her share of scuffles as a beat cop. Her knowledge of Karate and fencing helped her through some rough job-related situations.

“Police work has changed over the years,” said Thomas, whose husband is a retired Clearwater officer. “Officers are more professional, more educated and must meet the demands of modern technology.”

Gone are the days, for example, when a patrol car contained only a two-way radio. Today they are equipped with computers and other modern conveniences.

There also are modern problems such as Internet child pornography and identity theft that didn't exist a decade or so ago. The population explosion also creates more crime.

Thomas launched projects to erase the cloak and dagger mystique of police work. The volunteer civilian police, Neighborhood Watch, Police Explorers and the Seniors vs. Crime projects have been designed to meet that goal. The latter program is a combined effort between the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office and police to deal with crimes against the elderly.

Many officers join the police department to give back to their community. They must be carefully screened and trained before putting on a uniform.

“We never know when an event will throw us into an international spotlight,” Thomas said. “That's why we must always be ready to meet any challenges.”
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