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Council hammers police chief

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council hammered police Chief Chuck Harmon during three hours of questioning on Thursday that revealed a rare schism with one of the city's top administrators.

The debate centered on the Police Department's continued assertions that crime is down across St. Petersburg, even as neighborhood leaders complain of rampant drug activity and violence.

Pointing to a 10 percent drop in crime so far this year compared with a year ago, Harmon said his department is a success. But council members countered that they're tired of hearing that crime statistics are down when the city seems to be spiraling out of control.

"They keep saying everything is fine and it is not," said council member Wengay Newton.

The council first asked to discuss public safety concerns with Harmon more than a year ago, after it received an independent study highlighting the Police Department's successes and failures, but he did not comply until Thursday.

The study concluded that the Police Department was doing a good job, but it also revealed an overwhelming number of officers think the department needs to hire more officers. And union officials said the study included inflated numbers designed to make Harmon look good.

A rash of high-profile crimes such as the Christmas Day melee at Baywalk, when a series of shootings and brawls broke out at the downtown entertainment complex, and the murder of a mother of four near Lake Maggiore this month further riled council members, who wasted no time Thursday before ripping into the police chief.

The council questioned Harmon's leadership, whether the Police Department has enough officers and whether recent statistics really reflect less crime.

"I feel like I'm in court," Harmon said at one point.

Council member Jeff Danner said residents regularly complain about the reduced presence of police officers in their neighborhoods.

"People are fed up with hearing things are better than they were," he said. "That's incredibly frustrating to someone who just got beat up or had their car stolen."

Council member Karl Nurse said the department should assign officers to solve crimes instead of supervising community events such as the Festival of the States. He added that he was concerned with the department's struggle to retain officers.

Although nearly 200 of the department's more than 500 officers are expected to retire within the next decade, Harmon expressed confidence in his rookie force.

"We have got good young people," he said.

Newton assured Harmon that the council had only the city's best interest at heart.

"I know it seems like we are attacking you, but that's not the intention," he said.

In the end, Harmon agreed to have a representative from the Police Department meet monthly with the City Council to discuss public safety. The promise is an act of goodwill, since the council has no authority over Harmon, who reports to the mayor.

Still, the occasionally heated exchange did not impress Mark Deasaro, president of the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association.

He said the council merely threw a few "softballs" at Harmon. He called for an in-depth investigation into the Police Department's inner workings.

"We don't have enough police, everyone knows that," he said.

For homeowners who have expressed concerns about the Police Department for years, Thursday's debate was long overdue.

"That kind of accountability should be the standard," said Scott Swift of the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association.

Twin Brooks Crime Watch coordinator Annie Wainwright said she believes Harmon is sincere about his desire to make the city safer.

"But he doesn't need to get complacent," she said. "Just right here in my neighborhood this week I heard five or six shots. That's not something that happens in my neighborhood."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com
or (727) 893-8846.

>FAST FACTS

The issues

Police Chief Chuck Harmon addressed the City Council's public safety concerns Thursday. Here are some of the issues that came up.

Issue: Drug arrests are down 5 percent this year from the same time last year.

Council member Wengay Newton: "We are at war. It's us against the drug dealers."

Harmon: "I think we are doing well. Do we have some things we need to work on as a community? Absolutely. Everything is not roses."

Issue: The Police Department has about 520 officers.

Council member Jim Kennedy: "There is a strong perception from various voices in the community that we are understaffed."

Harmon: "Everything we look at as a performance indicator says ... we are excelling."

Issue: Crime is down 10 percent so far compared with the same time last year.

Council member Jeff Danner: "People are fed up with hearing things are better than they were. … It's not the time for that."

Harmon: "I completely agree. One crime is too many."

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Council hammers police chief 05/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 4, 2008 10:01am]
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