Police chief to head juvenile justice agency

Published: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Tallahassee Police Chief Walt McNeil was named Thursday by Gov. Charlie Crist to lead the state Department of Juvenile Justice, an agency that's been under fire over the death of a teen following a confrontation with guards at a sheriff's boot camp.

The Republican governor announced McNeil will take over from Anthony Schembri, who had headed the agency since 2004.

McNeil is a Democrat, the second to be tapped by Crist to head a state agency. New Department of Children & Families Secretary Bob Butterworth is also a Democrat.

When asked whether there was any significance to that, Crist said it was news to him.

"I didn't ask," Crist said. "It really didn't matter. He's a Floridian."

"Excellent, excellent, excellent," was the reaction of Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, which has been a vocal critic of the agency.

Hill said McNeil, who is black, will have credibility and that the pick showed Crist has sensitivity to the black community's concerns about the agency, which Hill said deals with a disproportionately large number of black children.

But Hill said ultimately McNeil's qualifications in law enforcement and abilities as a leader make him a good choice.

"I have nothing but the utmost respect for his leadership," Hill said.

McNeil, 51, rose through the ranks after beginning as a Tallahassee police officer in 1979. He has also served as vice president of the International Association of Police Chiefs.

He has had a great relationship with his officers and did an excellent job as chief, said Matt Puckett, the deputy executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

"It's a fantastic appointment. He's more than qualified," Puckett said.

McNeil will take over an agency that has been scarred in recent years by the deaths of young people in its custody.

A year ago, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died after a confrontation with guards at a Panama City boot camp. It and other camps were later shut down by the Legislature. Although the camps weren't run by DJJ, the agency came under fire for sending children to them for their punishment.

The NAACP had initially threatened to picket Crist's inaugural ceremony because of anger over the Anderson case and a perceived slowness in investigating it.

But after the group had announced it would protest, several guards were charged in connection with the case.

Also, Crist agreed to meet with NAACP leaders, and the group backed away from the plan.

Crist sidestepped a question about whether the boot camp case played any role in his decision not to retain Schembri, who had expressed a desire to continue in the job.

"I just couldn't think of a better person (than McNeil) to bring in, regardless of the circumstances," said Crist, who became governor on Tuesday.

McNeil said he didn't have any preconceived notions about what the department needed, and said one of the first things he would be looking for was a report from a citizens' review team that is tasked with evaluating the agency.

Asked about the agency's role in dealing with juvenile crime, McNeil said it had to be "holistic," seeking to prevent crime and treat offenders while still protecting the public. He called prevention of juvenile crime "the keystone," to the agency's mission.

McNeil turned down an invitation to interview for the Nashville chief of police position in 2003, but recently had sought to move on, applying unsuccessfully last year to head the state police agency, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

As chief in Tallahassee, McNeil has been in charge of about 350 officers and a $42 million budget.

"Walt McNeil is nationally recognized as an outstanding law enforcement administrator. Gov. Crist made an excellent choice," said Scott Maddox, a Democrat who was Tallahassee's mayor when McNeil was hired as police chief. "He is respected by his officers and by the community at large and he made me very proud as his mayor."

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