Marco Island city manager says police chief decision stands

Devan Patel
Marco Eagle

Despite overwhelming support for embattled Police Chief Al Schettino, Marco Island City Manager David Harden’s decision to seek new leadership for the department appears unwavering.

Schettino announced Feb. 21 that he would retire on June 15 but in the days, weeks and months since, rumors swirled that the decision was not voluntary, leading to the “Keep the Chief” campaign as thousands of people flocked to his side in solidarity and in support for him to remain the head of Marco Island’s police department.

In anticipation of an outpouring of support in favor of keeping Schettino, Harden issued a statement before the start of public comment that lifted the veil on what many had suspected. Harden said it had been his policy to keep personnel issues private to protect the privacy and dignity of outgoing employees but could no longer follow it based on what had transpired.

“Unfortunately over the past year, a series of embarrassing incidents involving our police department have come to light,” Harden said. “Considering all of that and based on my 35 years of city manager experience supervising police departments and almost 45 years working in local government, it was my judgment that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Chief Schettino to lead the department and overcome its past history.”

A packed crowd at the Marco Island City Council meeting claps for Police Chief Al Schettino.

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While Harden acknowledged that some problems were inherited from previous administrations, many of the embarrassing situations came with Schettino in-charge or directly involved in the management decision.

This included multiple officers being found to have had sex on duty and an officer that knew of the transgressions, but did not report it, and was promoted months later.

The last straw came when Harden learned that Officer Tige Thompson's tarnished credibility prevented him from testifying in court yet he was still on patrol.

This led to the state attorney’s office declining to prosecute the majority of Thompson’s arrests, including one in late December when a Marco Island man barricaded himself in his home with a cache of weapons, which prompted a call to SWAT.

Supporters of the chief referred to the incident as a problem inherited from previous administrations as Thompson was hired before Schettino even arrived on Marco Island.

More:Marco Island police chief intends to retire June 15

The issue at hand, though, was that Schettino placed Thompson on patrol after he was previously in investigations, feeling that Thompson would taint all the cases he was involved with. 

After Dr. Richard Blonna said the issue had become divisive and lent support for both Schettino and Councilor Larry Honig, all but one of the remaining speakers passionately came to the defense of their police chief.

Vicki Huff told the City Council how much the safety of her family meant. Huff noted how residents didn’t have to worry about certain violent crimes ever happening on Marco as well as how residents of other communities came there for events like Halloween.

“Not too many places can you live with that feeling of safety,” Huff said.

Former Councilor Joe Batte, who had the opportunity to interview the temporary city manger before his political term ended, said that when he spoke to Harden, he was told  he would bring stability and senior management to the position.

“He comes in and cuts the throat of a senior program director, probably one of the best police chiefs in the entire state,” Batte said.

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Batte also called for the city to stop its search for a new police chief.

“Don’t allow a stranger to take away our police chief,” Batte said.

The most poignant moment, however, came from Schettino’s wife, Carol, who attempted to tackle several of the incidents her husband faced scrutiny over and like others who spoke, pointed to Honig as a source of the divisiveness.

“It’s interesting to note the common denominator, which is causing attacks on our citizens and unrest in our community, is Councilman Honig,” Schettino said. “Citizens voices are trying to be silenced, threats, bullying and out and out unethical behavior.”

After ending her statements with “Do what’s right. Keep the chief,” Carol Schettino began to openly cry as her husband met her in a warm embrace as she headed back to her seat.

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While some police chief supporters claimed they were the victims of intimidation and bullying, they showed no mercy to Alex Popoff, the one person that spoke out against retaining Schettino.

Popoff, a former military police officer and veteran, was shouted over on numerous occasions, leading to Council Chairperson Erik Brechnitz to call for civility.

When he said he was a veteran, one woman shouted out, “So what?”

Popoff, however, began to draw the ire of the crowd when reading the “dedicated record to untruthfulness, corruption and looking the other way in the presence of issues.”

“When people say they are comfortable with their children on Marco Island, I ask them, ‘You’re right. No one is going to rape them except the police department themselves.”

When Popoff left Council Chambers and headed out to the parking lot, he captured video of police supporters jeering him as well as one man sticking up his middle fingers.

As for the City Council, it stayed relatively quiet about Harden’s decision except for a statement by Brechnitz ahead of public comment and a discussion led by Councilor Jared Grifoni towards the meeting’s end.

Brechnitz told the crowd that decision about Schettino was made by the city manager and that it would remain that way as he voiced support for his decision.

He also shot down calls for the City Council to remove Harden as city manager.

“I think it’s admirable that you’ve come out here to support your friend,” Brechnitz said.  “… I think it’s unlikely that support is going to change the end game.”

More:Investigation finds two former Marco Island cops were having sex while on duty

In calling for the need for some understanding in the community, Grifoni motioned for the city manager to bring back proposals for some kind of audit or review of everything that had happened in the police department.

Grifoni’s motion, however, would fail 5-2 as only Honig voted for its support.

“The victims and the whistleblowers need to know that we as their elected representatives are not ignoring them,” Grifoni said. “They deserve better.”