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Police Chief Chuck Harmon prepares for questions from City Council

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon compared his last appearance before the City Council to a day in court.

But some City Council members said that was just a warm-up to the firing squad he'll face Thursday.

As St. Petersburg contends with a rash of violent crimes, some City Council members said they are fed up with Harmon's reassurances and crime fighting tactics. They hope to get answers Thursday, when Harmon is scheduled to lead a rare public discussion on crime and safety during a council workshop.

"We have drug houses that we have known about for years that we haven't shut down," said council member Karl Nurse. "Ultimately the mayor is responsible, but clearly the police chief is the largest share of this because he sets the orders within the Police Department."

The discussion likely will target Harmon's stance that crime is down despite a recent wave of violent crimes, including a series of convenience store holdups and shootings.

Robberies and burglaries are up 8 and 14 percent, according to police. Homicides, meanwhile, fell 23 percent between 2007 and 2008.

Harmon, who was appointed by and reports to Mayor Rick Baker, said he welcomes greater communication between his department and the City Council. "It is important to do this because they represent the city of St. Petersburg, all the citizens, and indirectly that's who I represent," Harmon said.

But council members said Harmon has sometimes shied away from public scrutiny.

"The citizens, they want to hear that crime is down. All they know is this guy is shot, this kid was killed," said council member Bill Dudley. "We need to have facts. People want to know. They need assurance."

Harmon promised to regularly discuss crime with the council when he last appeared before the city's legislative body in May, but failed to follow through.

Harmon said he was confused about the council's request for frequent updates. "I'm not sure we both got a good understanding of what they were looking for," he said.

Council members also complained that little was accomplished during that discussion, partly because Harmon was not prepared to answer specific questions.

The council doesn't want any misunderstandings this time.

Council members collectively submitted 25 questions and comments about the department's procedures to Harmon Monday so that he can prepare responses for Thursday's discussion.

The questions range from the mundane to the specific. Dudley inquired about the department's overtime policy. Council member Wengay Newton wanted to know what the department was doing about blatant drug deals in the Midtown and Childs Park areas.

Harmon already submits monthly reports on the department's crime rates and performance measures to the council. He said he also contacts individual council members when serious crimes occur in their districts.

"I would probably say that I call them with more issues than they call me with," he said. "But maybe there is something better we can do to meet their needs."

But Harmon warned that any information that could put police officers at risk or tip off criminals would be off-limits Thursday.

"The problem I have with us discussing what the police are doing is that you sometimes can't talk about what we are doing," he said.

Baker said the Police Department is doing a good job, but he doesn't want his staff to get complacent. "Public safety is the No. 1 issue in the city," he said. "We are always going to be re-examining ourselves and trying to get better."

Not every council member is gearing up to pick a fight with the city's top cop.

Council member Jim Kennedy said Thursday's workshop will help him understand if crime really is getting worse or not.

"I'm trying to educate myself so I can formulate reasonable opinions," he said. "I don't want to take the position that I have more knowledge than the police chief on criminology."


If you go

Police Chief Chuck Harmon will discuss crime with the City Council on Thursday during a workshop at City Hall in Room 100. The discussion will follow the City Council meeting, which starts at 8:30 a.m. and does not adjourn at a set time.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon prepares for questions from City Council 02/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 2, 2009 10:53pm]
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