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Foster's pledges to crack down on St. Petersburg crime falters

ST. PETERSBURG — On the campaign trail in 2009, Mayor Bill Foster promised to crack down on crime.

He vowed to give police more power to chase criminals. He pledged to put up security cameras in neighborhood "hot spots" known for drug dealing.

But at the midway point of his administration, Foster's more lenient chase policy has come under fire after a police chase Jan. 10 left one man dead and six others hurt.

At the same time, Foster refuses to explain why his plan to launch a network of surveillance cameras has stalled. In fact, the program was quietly eliminated.

Foster shut down a public discussion about the chase policy during a recent council meeting by saying that a pending legal claim from the January crash prevented him from talking specifics. However, when the Times asked about the claim, the city at first provided one unrelated to the January chase.

Officials later confirmed no such claim exists.

Foster was unfazed by the revelation, saying: "It won't be discussed as long as there's a possibility of litigation."

He's similarly reticent about the surveillance cameras. Although much of the system already is in place, Foster said he won't operate it until it can be "done right."

He wouldn't elaborate on what that entails or how much it would cost.

He said he wants to avoid a back-and-forth with a former police employee, Gene Webb, who first disclosed that the surveillance program had been scrapped on a local blog.

Asked repeatedly to provide details about a plan he says he has already devised to resurrect the program, Foster refused.

His lack of candor comes as no surprise for council members who have long criticized Foster for not communicating better.

"I assumed we had the cameras working," said council member Jeff Danner. "But we don't get updates from the mayor. It's another in a series of things that you don't know about until someone brings it up. We're just not getting the information we need."

'Game on'

During the stretch run of the mayor's race, Foster billed himself as the law and order guy.

In an email blast to voters, Foster highlighted the ideas he would promote if elected — the first 10 related to public safety.

His pledge to expand the high-speed pursuit policy to give officers greater leeway in chasing suspects was one of his more concrete ideas. It also pleased police unions that had demanded a more liberal policy for years.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon initially resisted because he thought loosening the policy to allow officers to chase thieves was too risky.

After Foster's election, Harmon publicly supported the change, and in early 2010, union representative and St. Petersburg police Sgt. Karl Lounge memorably said, "It's game on now."

Not everyone was celebrating.

"We should value life more than we value chasing teenagers who steal cars," council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said at the time.

Some residents, such as Brenda Nelson, vice president of the Neighborhood Association of Childs Park, said there has been an uptick in police cars speeding through residential areas since the policy change.

"We're very concerned about the high rate of speeds these cars travel," Nelson said.

Harmon said the new policy isn't that different.

"People shouldn't be thinking we're chasing people and being reckless and careless," he said.

But a Jan. 10 car chase gave critics fresh ammunition.

About 5 p.m. on a busy stretch of 49th Street, police chased after Kenneth Gordon Davis Jr., who allegedly snatched a purse a few days earlier.

The brief chase ended with a multivehicle crash at Fifth Avenue N and 49th Street. Davis died at the scene.

"There's other ways to catch people," one of the six people hospitalized, Luis Guzman, told the Times.

Police said the chase would have ensued under the old policy because purse snatching is considered a violent felony.

Still, the new policy lets officers consider whether they know the identity of the suspect (they did), the time of day (it was rush hour), and the nature of the crime (a purse snatching.)

When Curran wanted to discuss how the policy is being followed during a meeting last week, she was cut off by Foster and City Attorney John Wolfe. They told council members that a claim had been filed stemming from that crash, a required step to suing the city.

"That's something that may go to a jury," Wolfe told council members. "That's something I would not like any questions on."

Curran pushed for a more open discussion.

"The question that needs to be asked is, 'Did we follow policy?' " Curran said.

"That one we won't answer," Foster said with a laugh.

"And you know, that's unfortunate that you chuckle about that," Curran said.

"I don't chuckle over lawsuits," Foster said, suddenly serious.

"And I don't chuckle over innocent citizens losing their life," she said.

When the Times requested information about the claim from the Jan. 10 crash, Wolfe said he confused a claim filed in December involving another crash also on 49th Street.

Wolfe said he does expect a lawsuit in the Jan. 10 chase.

"We almost always do on these kinds of things," Wolfe said.

Because of that, Foster said he won't discuss how the policy is followed.

"I'll discuss the policy all day, it's the implementation of it that I won't discuss," Foster said.

Curran said she would like to hold a town hall meeting to discuss the policy. She'll steer clear of specifics in case the city is sued.

"I'm told by our attorney that this is something not to discuss, I'm not going to discuss it," Curran said. "But I do think what concerns the neighborhoods is this relaxed police policy, and it's important that we hear their concerns."

'It's up to you'

Gene Webb thought Foster was clear on the campaign trail when he pledged to install security cameras throughout the city.

As the information technology manager at the Police Department, Webb said he spent much of 2010 turning Foster's promise into reality.

But Webb disclosed last month that the cameras he helped install in Williams, Lake Vista and Fossil parks were for naught because the two monitoring stations were left unattended.

Harmon and others had a variety of concerns about the cameras, Webb said. If the cameras recorded a crime and it wasn't detected, were police liable? If cameras were placed at a hot spot, would that mean police were illegally targeting an area? Should a sworn officer or a civilian monitor the cameras?

The program eventually died because of a lack of interest, Webb told the Times this week. Also scrapped: a plan to integrate the city's other cameras, which are being watched, including 28 cameras at the marina, the port and airport.

"We got the cameras up and running," said Webb, who retired in October after 28 years. "But it never gelled. … There was just no interest in it."

Council member Karl Nurse thinks the city is missing a chance to keep a closer watch on neighborhoods with blatant drug dealing. Just the presence of the cameras would make the drug dealers scatter, he said, "like roaches with the light on."

He said as much at last week's council meeting. Foster said that, while he agrees with Nurse's sentiments, it's not up to him.

"Because we have to cut $10 million (in this year's budget)," Foster told council members, "it's up to you. So if you want to do this, and fund it, I'm all for it. But when I bring a corresponding cut, don't tell me we can't cut."

Foster said the issue is the council's to resolve, adding that he has bigger concerns now that he's mayor.

"From the campaign until now, to this budget we just passed, we have had over $33 million in reduced (property taxes)," Foster said. "I haven't had one budget where I didn't have to cut millions, so you have to be careful about what you add."

Foster's pledges to crack down on St. Petersburg crime falters 02/08/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 9, 2012 9:17am]
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