A veteran police officer who started in Clearwater more than two decades ago when crack cocaine was a new plague on the streets officially took over the New Port Richey Police Department Tuesday night.
James Steffens, who joined the city’s police force in May as lieutenant of operations, was sworn in before the City Council after six weeks as interim chief.
City Manager John Schneiger said he’s been impressed with the work Steffens has done in the interim position.
“He has shown an exceptionally strong sense of public service. He’ll be a great asset to the city,” Schneiger said.
Mayor Bob Consalvo said Steffens has done an excellent job on an interim basis.
After the ceremony, in which Pasco Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa presided over the swearing in, Steffens said his goal growing up was to become a police officer.
Siracusa volunteered to administer the oath because he and Steffens have been friends since elementary school, growing up in Pinellas County.
The city’s new top cop is a St. Petersburg native and was raised in east central Clearwater. He moved to Pasco County nine years ago.
His early police career included duty as a community police officer in the area of North Greenwood in 1988, one of Clearwater’s harshest neighborhoods at a time when crack cocaine was hitting the streets and igniting a tidal wave of crime and addiction. He called it an “epidemic”.
He retired from the Clearwater Police Department in January 2009, while earning a salary of $93,235 and took a 20-year retirement package, going to work in the private sector before joining the New Port Richey department.
Steffens, 43, was hired at the New Port Richey Police Department to fill the lieutenant of operations job, which supervises patrols and policing activities, including the department's new Special Investigations Unit. His first day on the job in New Port Richey was May 1, and he was sworn in May 17. His salary is $68,000.
He brings extensive experience he gained dealing with difficult situations, starting with his post with the North Greenwood Neighborhood Patrol Team.
The beat was dangerous, and the police were “in reactive mode” at first. A Clearwater substation had been set up in the area in North Greenwood in 1985 with the help of a federal grant. The substation and increased police force were initially met with much resistance, according to the Clearwater Police Department website.
Then officers started getting out of their cars and into the neighborhoods, Steffens said. They patrolled on foot and bike. They worked with residents, churches and community service organizations. In 1994, Steffens' team was awarded Pinellas County's highest law enforcement honor, the Allen Moore Gold Badge Award.
Steffens, a member of the Clearwater SWAT team since 1991, worked as a burglary/grand theft and robbery/homicide detective with the criminal investigations division for two years. He was made sergeant and placed in charge of the North Greenwood Neighborhood Patrol Team in 1997.
In 1996, Clearwater was designated as part of the U.S. Department of Justice-funded Weed and Seed program to fight violent crime, drug abuse and gang activity in high-crime neighborhoods. North Greenwood, South Greenwood and Old Clearwater Bay and, later, the city's downtown "gateway" were designated as Weed and Seed communities.
The North Greenwood Patrol team was a key component of the program in North Greenwood.
In a command position, Steffens continued the department’s regular reverse sting undercover drug operations, similar to the six-month undercover drug sweeps conducted in Pasco County. He worked with the state Department of Juvenile Justice to enforce curfew.
In addition to keeping the law, the team worked with social programs, such as the Prenatal and Early Childhood Nurse Home Visitation Program conducted by the Pinellas County Department of Health, according to the Clearwater police website.
Steffens was promoted to lieutenant in 2001 and the operations commander of the department’s west district starting in 2006.
"I got to see the evolution of the area," over two decades, he said.
“It was pretty cool,” he said.