CLEARWATER -- The Clearwater Police Department no longer assigns an officer to gather intelligence about the Church of Scientology, a major policy shift ending 20 years of vigilance against the controversial group. Police Chief Sid Klein disclosed the change in an interview Friday, saying, "It's time to move on."
But he emphasized his department will continue to investigate, when appropriate. "Let me make it clear," Klein said. "We have and will continue to investigate aggressively any allegations of criminal conduct perpetrated by the church, any of its members or against the church." The change does not affect the case of Lisa McPherson, the Scientologist who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of church staffers. Scientology's corporate entity in Clearwater has been charged with two felony counts for allegedly abusing McPherson and practicing medicine without a license. A trial is scheduled for March 6.
Church officials said Friday they are pleased with Klein's decision. "We're happy to hear that that past chapter is closed," said Marty Rathbun, a high-ranking Scientologist based in Los Angeles.
"Our goals are to move forward in a cooperative manner with the city and take our share of responsibility by clearing away any misconceptions that may have been created. Our only desire from the Police Department is that the church and its parishioners are treated like any other citizens in the community."
Klein's decision quietly took effect months ago, after the city settled a four-year court battle with Scientology over whether the department's intelligence records could be released.
But the change was made, Klein said, independent of the court settlement. He said a major factor in his decision was the possibility of litigation against the city by the church. He said he felt an obligation to protect the city from that threat.
It also marks another example of how in recent years the once-icy relations between Scientology and the city have thawed. For the first time since the church moved to Clearwater in 1975, Scientologists are participating in discussions about downtown redevelopment. At the same time, the church is constructing a $45-million building downtown as part of a $60-million to $90-million expansion at various sites.
"The church is here, it's not going away and we need to treat them like any other citizens of the community," Klein said.
But, alluding to years of animosity that preceded his decision, Klein added: "I do have a memory like an elephant and I won't forget. I won't forget or forgive the personal attacks on me."
Among those was a defiant march on police headquarters in December 1997 by an estimated 3,000 Scientologists, who chanted: "Sid Klein, what's your crime?" In letters to the chief that week, church officials accused him of discriminating against Scientology.
"We don't want to engage in debates about past conflicts," Rathbun said in response to Klein's remark. "There's a lot we could say about personal attacks, but what's more important is that we're moving forward. And for that we appreciate Chief Klein's integrity."
Critics of the church have alleged that Klein's decision was ordered by City Manager Mike Roberto, whom the critics view with contempt for breaking with past practice and including Scientology in discussions about civic affairs. But Klein said the decision was his alone. He said he did not consult Roberto.
The policy change was never announced to the public, but Klein discussed it this week after Scientology critic Robert S. Minton posted an e-mail message about it. Minton, a New England millionaire, was arrested by Clearwater police Sunday on a misdemeanor battery charge, accused of striking a Scientology staffer.
Police began gathering intelligence on the church in 1979, the beginning of a turbulent time that saw 11 high-ranking Scientologists jailed for breaking into federal offices in Washington. As a result of their investigation, federal authorities found Scientology internal memos outlining plans by church officials to control public opinion in Clearwater, concoct a sex smear campaign against then-mayor Gabe Cazares and infiltrate local institutions.
"I think we've done everything we possibly could," Klein said of the intelligence effort. "We have literally left no stone unturned. I have at times felt like the lone ranger, kind of out there by myself. And we've never dropped our vigilance against this organization or any other that we thought might be a threat to the citizens of Clearwater." He thanked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for helping the small department when it became overwhelmed with the effort, and said federal authorities never responded to his requests for help.
Klein added: "I think the history will clearly demonstrate that the Clearwater Police Department didn't start this. It started when the Church of Scientology arrived and how they arrived in Clearwater."
In the early years of Scientology's presense in Clearwater, the intelligence operation consisted of one full-time officer, Klein said. In later years, those duties were shared among several officers working part time, he said. An intelligence operation can stretch the resources of a small department, Klein said. "So we put our resources where our priorities are, and they are elsewhere at this point in time."