On May 5, around 6 p.m., St. Petersburg police officer Ken Kokotek walked into SPPD headquarters carrying a bundle of homemade invitation cards. The cards announced his retirement party, something he had been looking forward to after 25 years with the police force. He stayed only 20 minutes, just enough time to stuff about 65 invitations into the second-floor mailboxes of fellow police officers.
But these weren't ordinary Hallmark party invitations. The card's front showed the famously bumbling silent film characters the Keystone Cops, onto which Kokotek had superimposed the faces of Mayor Rick Baker, Police Chief Chuck Harmon, Assistant Chief Luke Williams, Major Melanie Bevan and other SPPD supervisors.
Inside, after the invite and map to his home, Kokotek revealed a secret he had hidden for six years: He was "Picasso," the screen name he had used to post doctored images lampooning SPPD's command staff on the police message board website, LEOaffairs.com.
For the top brass at the SPPD, the party was over for Picasso. After learning of the invitations, they immediately began an Internal Affairs investigation that concluded late last month. According to IA files, if Kokotek had not retired, he would have been fired for posting "denigrating" and "discriminatory" images of his co-workers. And now, the SPPD is seeking to take away his law enforcement certification, which would prevent him from ever being hired again as a Florida police officer.
The decision has worried some police officers on and off the Internet. Don't officers have the right to criticize their superiors? Or did Kokotek's attacks — which targeted both white and black administrators — aggravate racial tensions in a department where morale is already notoriously low?
"If what I was doing is directly affecting morale or that I cause the morale problem, I'd see that," says Kokotek. "I didn't tarnish the reputation St. Pete had. St. Pete did that itself."
An Illinois native, Ken Kokotek moved to Tampa Bay in 1980, seeking a change from a failed marriage and lack of job prospects up north. Upon arriving, the Vietnam veteran worked at a Safety Harbor lumberyard during the day and tended bar at night. In 1982, he decided to join the St. Petersburg Police Department.
"When I first came here, I heard St. Pete PD was the place to go," Kokotek recalls.
He completed the police academy and started out as a patrol officer for the city's Southside. Back then, he says, the SPPD was respected throughout Florida.
"The sergeants, when I started, were seasoned veterans," he says. "If they said something, you respected it."
But Kokotek's honeymoon with the department would not last. He's part of the old guard of police officers who have worked through a turbulent 20 years: the racial strife throughout the '90s; sudden police chief firings and subsequent reorganizations of the department; rapidly rising attrition that's forced officers to work longer hours; and a plummeting morale. SPPD has long lagged behind other area law enforcement agencies in pay and officer-friendly policies, says Kokotek and other police officers interviewed by CL.
During the first two decades years of his career, Kokotek kept criticism to himself. He received several honorable distinctions, awards and positive performance evaluations. In 1986, he was promoted to the vehicular homicide unit, where he stayed for 13 years before returning to patrol. And except for a few reprimands — including one for placing an altered mugshot of his former fiancée's new boyfriend on her car — Kokotek won praise from his superiors.
"Officer Kokotek is an experienced officer who maintains a calm, professional manner when dealing with both the public and his peers," read his most recent evaluation. "He is courteous and respectful toward people."
But starting in 2002, Kokotek took his criticisms public on the police message board, LEOaffairs.com. Afraid of reprisals, he wrote under the screen name "Picasso."
"My idea was let's put some faces and names on [these decisions] and what [the police administration] is doing in the background," he says.
Already proficient at Photoshop, Kokotek scoured the Internet for clip art and photos of police personnel. Then he blended the images together, usually in an unflattering and politically charged fashion.
In response to the city's decision to pay for a police presence at the Midtown Sweetbay grocery store, Kokotek took a police badge insignia and added the words "Sweetbay Po-Po" and "Paper or Plastic."
After the tent city slashings last year, ordered by Major Melanie Bevan, Kokotek altered a photo of the policewoman to give her scissor-hands. In another image, her head is put on the body of a dominatrix.
For nearly six years, Kokotek poked fun at the city's power brokers, photoshopping Mayor Baker's head onto a ballerina and Ronald McDonald. Chief Harmon, who was Kokotek's roommate for a brief time when they were in the police academy, is shown as grossly obese. Other caricatures flirt with racial stereotypes. In one picture, Assistant Chief Luke Williams, widely thought to be the next police chief, is portrayed as a pimp. In another, Assistant Chief Cedric Gordon appears to be buttering a piece of cornbread. Both Williams and Gordon are black.