Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas Penick, who has the unenviable task of refereeing sidewalk skirmishes between the Church of Scientology and anti-Scientology protesters in Clearwater, recently pointed to an arrangement that allows off-duty Clearwater cops to work for Scientology and noted, "They are coming very dangerously close to becoming a private security force for the Church of Scientology."
Penick was right to call attention to the uncomfortably cozy relationship developing between city police and the church, which has its spiritual headquarters in downtown Clearwater.
Under the arrangement, sanctioned by Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein, the church pays $25 an hour for two uniformed police officers to work 8 half-hour shifts 365 days a year. Officers sign up for the extra work if they want it and are assigned on a rotating basis. As reported Sunday by staff writer Deborah O'Neil, the Church of Scientology has paid nearly $150,000 to 110 officers since January 2000. The Police Department gets $2.50 an hour from the church to cover fees and workers' compensation.
The situation seems bizarre to observers who know that since the church moved into Clearwater under a false identity in the 1970s, the relationship between Scientology and the Clearwater Police Department has been cool at best, outwardly hostile at worst. The police gathered intelligence on Scientology for years, amassing an enormous investigative file. The church struck back by writing attack pieces about the police, printing them in Scientology publications and throwing them on residents' lawns.
The relationship worsened after the suspicious death of church member Lisa McPherson in a Scientology hotel and the arrival of the Lisa McPherson Trust, which is organized and operated out of downtown offices by Scientology critics.
The off-duty officers are hired by the church to make sure that no one -- particularly staff of the Lisa McPherson Trust -- messes with Scientologists coming and going from church facilities on Watterson Avenue, a downtown side street where many clashes between the two sides have occurred. On-duty cops often were summoned to Watterson Avenue to mediate until Klein granted the church's request for off-duty officers.
Klein felt that police were needed on Watterson and that putting off-duty officers there would free on-duty officers for other tasks. There was also a matter of fairness to consider. The Clearwater Police Department provides off-duty officers to more than 50 organizations, many of them churches. How could it say yes to a Catholic or Presbyterian church, but treat Scientology differently?
Here's how: Though Scientology has worked to improve its image and relationship with the city in recent years, the fact is that the church, by virtue of its controversial history in Clearwater and its altercations with the Lisa McPherson Trust, is not like most other Clearwater churches.
Also, there is a big difference between providing an off-duty officer to a church to direct traffic after Sunday services and supplying off-duty officers to protect Scientology from its critics every day of the year.
Klein orders officers who work off-duty for Scientology not to take sides. It is naive for him to expect that every officer earning income from Scientology and interacting regularly with its members will always be capable of objectivity.
And it is unwise to place officers employed by the church in a position to be first-responders, report-writers and official witnesses when incidents occur between the church and protesters.
If Klein sees a need for a law enforcement presence on Watterson Avenue, he should assign on-duty officers to work there, whether or not off-duty officers continue to be employed by the church.