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07-08-2007, 08:12 PM
North Port PD hopeful for 7 police recruits

NORTH PORT -- Even though he is chief of police, Terry Lewis still goes to the police academy.

But these days, he's there to encourage the recruits whom he expects will soon join North Port's police force.

"The chief is awesome," said Shannon Atkinson, a recent academy graduate and one of North Port's newest officers. "While I was attending, he visited the academy at least once a month."

Atkinson, who was one of only three women in a class of 27 at the academy, found Lewis very supportive. She has now joined a handful of women on North Port's force.

Atkinson is but one example of Lewis' efforts to diversify the police force -- Errington Neysmith II is another. When he finishes the academy and is sworn in as a North Port officer, he will be the only black officer among the city's ranks.

But not for long, Lewis hopes. He'd like to diversify the force so that it better reflects the city.

"You will be impressed by this set of recruits," Lewis said to introduce the seven -- including Neysmith -- who will start the academy shortly.

They include Chris Holmes, a graduate of George Mason University Law School. Holmes was a prosecutor for seven years before deciding to become a police officer.

William Smith is another. After spending 18 years at PGT, he decided to join the police when the city lifted its restriction on employing family members. (His brother is also on the force.)

Rick Urbina was a computer programmer. Steven Marshall was a court investigator for the 20th judicial circuit. David Cook has a four-year degree in criminology and served as a state probation officer.

Jeff Wilson, who grew up in Bradenton, served eight years in the Marine Corps. And Neysmith graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

Finally, there was Sean Davies who was just sworn into the North Port police force as the other recruits gathered to congratulate him. He had spent several years in loss prevention, and felt getting into law enforcement was the next logical step.

Introduction to the city

For the past two weeks, the seven recruits have been hanging around the North Port Police Department, riding along with officers, learning rules and procedures, and getting to know the town.

"I've been riding with Officer Lee Wallace, and he's great to ride with," Holmes said. "There's a lot of involvement with the community beyond just making arrests. I'm impressed with the community aspect."

Several of the recruits were surprised by the emphasis on community policing. "I learned here in North Port, there are a lot more families," said Neysmith. "I realize they are all mothers and fathers, and we need to treat them the way we'd want our own family to be treated."

Cook said, "I was pleasantly surprised with the willingness of everyone here -- from the chief on down to the Records department -- to be helpful. This is a close-knit group and everyone works as a team."

Hayes was impressed with Chief Lewis, especially compared with other chiefs he'd known working as a prosecutor. "The main complaint I heard from other cops (in Virginia) is that their chief wouldn't stick up for them. But Chief Lewis, he's not just an administrator -- he's a cop. He still knows what it's like to be on the street. He's not just pushing paper."

Wilson liked Lewis's open door policy. "It's like he's one of us," the recruit said.

Driving around with North Port officers, the recruits learned the city has a young population, along with troubles that often come with it.

Urbina and Atkinson both mentioned signs of gang activity.

"There are two Mexican-based gangs, Sur 13 and Norte 14, but it's not clear whether they are really here or just kids using those names," Atkinson said.

"Sometimes, though the 'wannabes' are harder to deal with because they feel they've got something to prove," she observed.

Wilson, who hails from Bradenton, felt Sarasota County has done a better job containing the gang problem. "Here you see a lot of typical 'kid stuff' -- like stealing bikes. But there aren't any super-bad areas in North Port."

Neysmith also liked the lighter traffic compared with what he was used to around Fort Myers. "Here things seem slowed down."

He'd like an opportunity to work in the traffic unit one day. "I like to drive around, be out in the community, protecting drivers and the kids," he added.

Wilson said the group had already met City Manager Steve Crowell. "Everyone wanted to meet him. We learned he is big on customer service."

Urbina added, "Mr. Crowell is a no-nonsense guy. He made us understand the customer is our first priority.""

Lewis is eager to introduce the recruits to city commissioners on Monday. "I have great hopes for all of them," Lewis said. He plans to visit them at the police academy over the next 20 weeks.

Lewis said when North Port hires for its police force, they get 50 or 60 applicants every time. "We can still be very selective in who we hire," the chief said. Of this latest batch of recruits, he said, "I think they'll represent the community well."

You can e-mail Susan Hoffman at shoffman@sun-herald.com.


North Port Assistant Editor