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Atlantic Beach police chief resigns under criminal investigation

St. Augustine Record,

Atlantic Beach, FL

Atlantic Beach Police Chief Michael Classey resigned Tuesday after being suspended Friday because of an active criminal investigation, according to city officials.

Interim City Manager Nelson van Liere said Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials notified him Friday of an ongoing investigation involving Classey.

A Department of Law Enforcement spokesman declined to release additional information, but Classey’s controversial tenure as police chief included an accusation of inappropriate contact with a female police officer, missing guns from the evidence room and an alcohol-fueled incident with Jacksonville police prompting Classey to seek treatment for alcoholism.

Classey couldn’t be reached for comment.

Van Liere said he told Classey he was suspended Friday while he was driving home from the station. Classey’s base pay was $102,170. He also cashed out 50 percent of his accumulated personal leave, according to his personnel file.

Van Liere said the investigation has nothing to do with his job performance. Classey joined the department in 2006 from a police department in Kennesaw, Ga. He began his time in Atlantic Beach as a captain after a national search involving about 100 candidates.

Classey, 50, became chief Oct. 1, 2008, to replace David Thompson who served as Atlantic Beach’s police chief for 24 years.

Classey, who earned a master’s degree in public administration from Columbus State University in Georgia, preached community-oriented policing and described police work as customer service in a newspaper profile from when he took the position.

“He served Atlantic Beach well,” van Liere said. “I hope he takes the time to straighten out his personal life.”

Several issues arose in the department during Classey’s tenure as chief, including a situation where a female officer accused Classey of being “unlawfully sexually hostile.” Renee Jackson, an Atlantic Beach former officer, accused him of pinning her against a door inside police headquarters.

City officials hired Jacksonville attorney Margaret Zabijaka to investigate the matter. She found no evidence Classey did anything wrong and cleared him of misconduct after a month-long investigation.

Vincent Champion, president of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association, said his organization has fought the chief since Jackson, an association member, brought her complaint. He said Classey used strong-arm tactics, and association members felt bullied but didn’t file internal complaints because they feared losing their jobs.

“Our people haven’t been happy for a long time,” he said. “It appears that they [association members] are being picked on, they are being bullied. He flexes his muscles and says, ‘I’m chief and it’s this way.’ ”

In 2010 a police audit of the department’s evidence room found guns that couldn’t be linked to any case or owner, guns that should be there but weren’t and fingerprint cards without case numbers. There also was a “large number of bicycles missing” and some that couldn’t be linked to a criminal case.

Recently Classey launched an investigation into the department’s response of a September pit bull attack that ended with the resident having to kill the dog. Classey expressed concern about the lack of urgency shown by responding officer Michael Fissel and police dispatcher Frederick Gilbert.

However, Classey also had successes. During his tenure, violent crime and prostitution dropped in the Mayport Road corridor.

Atlantic Beach City Commissioner Jimmy Hill said he was surprised when he learned Classey was being investigated, but not about turnover inside the department. He said the department is supervisor-heavy with staff directory listing 11 police officers, eight supervisors including Classey and two detectives.

Classey’s personnel file included a late November 2008 police report where Jacksonville sheriff’s officers responded to a call from his son warning police his father may hurt himself.

The incident prompted a Dec. 2, 2008, discussion apparently with a city manager, but the letter in Classey’s file doesn’t identify the person who wrote it. The letter mentions Classey’s plans to take a 30-day leave of absence to address issues with alcohol. It is unclear if he got treatment.

Classey told city officials alcoholism runs in his family, that he has long battled alcoholism, his wife had just left him and that his position as police chief had not contributed to his problems.

Mayor Carolyn Woods said she didn’t know details about the current investigation, but the city is working through the process. She met with the city manager Friday to discuss the investigation.

Van Liere would not discuss why Classey is being investigated, citing an active investigation.

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