The first year of a new job is usually difficult.
You’re still learning the ropes, creating a niche for yourself and getting comfortable with your position and surroundings. But, if there were a contest for the most adversity faced during the first year of a job, Longboat Key Police Chief Pete Cumming’s transition would be almost impossible to beat.
Cumming has been the town’s police chief for almost a year now. He officially reaches the one-year mark May 14. But, the way he got the job was difficult, and when asked to review his first year as chief, Cumming felt obligated to start at the beginning.
Cumming was a police captain who had just parked his patrol car at the Atlas beach access on the morning of May 14.
He got a call from longtime police receptionist Marilyn Dzikas, who said he immediately needed to call back a friend of then Police Chief Al Hogle.
“He was up there riding in the mountains with Al and explained Al was in a crash and didn’t make it,” Cumming said. “I sat there in a daze for a minute before I took off for Sarasota to let Al’s wife know before she got the news from other sources.”
Cumming, along with former Sarasota Police Chief Mikel Holloway, among others, knocked on Leslie Hogle’s door. When she saw Cumming, she smiled before she noticed the myriad of officers behind Cumming.
“I grabbed her and walked her backward into the house and held onto her for more than an hour until I knew she would be OK,” Cumming said.
That’s how Cumming spent his first day as acting police chief for the town of Longboat Key: comforting the widow of one of his best friends.
“It was emotionally devastating to get this role,” Cumming said. “That day changed my life forever.”
It didn’t get better anytime soon.
Cumming had to move into his friend’s former office and go through all of his belongings.
“I still feel like it’s his office,” he said.
Once he was settled, it was budget season. The only problem was, Cumming had no idea what Hogle’s plans were for the police budget.
“I had to put the emotions aside and get into his head as a chief through the files he had in his desk,” Cumming said.
The most difficult part for Cumming was being in charge of officers who looked to him for leadership during a time of mourning.
“I had to put on a brave face while taking over everything Al had been working on overnight,” Cumming said.
Almost a year later, Cumming says he feels at home in his new role.
The town’s police chief has certainly made the position his own.
His first order of business was reviving a license plate camera-recognition system that was in limbo since 2010 because neither the Florida Department of Transportation, nor Florida Power & Light Co., would allow cameras in their right of ways.
With the help of Public Works Department staff and former Police Capt. Bill Tokajer, every square inch of town-owned right of way was measured.
“We ultimately located town-owned spots amid state rights of way that work,” said Cumming, who also negotiated a deal with Chart House officials to place a camera on top of one of their parking lot light poles.
The result? More than three years after Hogle started work on the system, Cumming expects the cameras to be installed any day.
Once the $79,000 system is installed, Cumming said the technology, which will capture the license plates of cars entering and exiting the Key, “will revolutionize” his department.
“We will get red flags if a sexual predator has entered the Key, if a car has an expired tag or if a wanted subject has driven a car into our town,” Cumming said. “The data is instantly sent to our department.”
And if a home is broken into at 3 a.m., police can review the tags of all cars that have entered and exited the Key around that timeframe.
Cumming’s next order of business was restructuring the entire police department. It was something he thought needed to be done a long time ago.
“We had five captains for a department of 21 sworn officers with nothing in between and no real chain of command,” Cumming said.
Cumming started drawing up organizational flow charts six months ago and received permission from Town Manager Dave Bullock to eliminate two captain positions when those employees left for new opportunities.
Cumming created a new chart with sergeant positions that didn’t cost the town additional money.
Last week, Cumming promoted officers Chris Skinner, Robert Bourque, John Thomas and Douglas Coffman to patrol sergeants. Nine patrol officers participated in the promotional process and competed for the positions. The testing consisted of an oral board with four high-ranking guest panelists from surrounding law-enforcement agencies.
“This is my biggest accomplishment so far, I believe,” Cumming said. “I did this within budget constraints and am now looking at morale within the department like I have never seen before.”
Mayberry — and proud of it
At home on Sundays, Cumming takes at least two hours to review every report his officers filed during the week.
“If I don’t do that, I’ll lose touch with them and what they’re doing,” said Cumming, who is able to provide officers feedback and has even helped connect a few crimes when reports looked similar to those from a previous week.
Cumming also has plans to design a new paint scheme for new police vehicles. He has $108,000 this year to replace aging patrol cars with two Ford Explorer SUVs and one Ford Taurus car. Next year, he plans to replace the rest of the aging fleet with new cars and SUVs.
He knows he will get some flack from budget-minded residents and commissioners who will question why officers need to drive gas-hungry SUVs.
But Cumming said all you have to do is look at tapes from Superstorm Sandy to see why the police department needs to add some SUVs to the mix.
Cumming called Bullock from his home one night while watching coverage of the storm on TV. He pointed out patrol cars couldn’t get over the heaps of sand the storm threw onto Long Island, N.Y.
Cumming said he’s well aware of the fact that his officers are known for going above and beyond.
Just last week, an officer responded to a call from a woman who dialed the department’s non-emergency line to explain her husband had died recently and her power went out. She couldn’t figure out how to reset her fuse box.
Cumming uses the call as an example when asked if the town is seriously considering Sarasota County’s offer to take over the town’s 911 dispatch services.
Cumming said he’s investigating the matter closely, but won’t hesitate to recommend the town say no to the offer if it means it comes with a decreased level of service for Key residents.
“A fuse-box call like that could have been met with a response of, ‘Go call an electrician, lady,’ from a larger agency,” Cumming said. “If that aspect of our service suffers, I’ll never be in favor of it. We are Mayberry out here. Our residents enjoy that special service, and we like it that way.”
Police Chief Pete Cumming's First Year Checklist
âœ“ Take over the position of police chief from the late Police Chief Al Hogle
âœ“ Put together a budget by sifting through Hogle's files in his desk.
âœ“ Boost employee morale during a time of mourning for the former police chief.
âœ“ Revive a license plate camera recognition system.
âœ“ Overhaul the police department's entire organizational structure.
âœ“ Create a new police squad car fleet that will include some SUVs.