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St. Petersburg police chief decision could be difficult for mayor

ST. PETERSBURG — On the campaign trail, Mayor Rick Kriseman said he would consider hiring a new police chief from outside the agency.

He also said he would listen to the community's wishes. Letters and emails have since come into City Hall, filling a binder two inches thick.

The majority of those people — neighborhood leaders, residents, city police officers and top officers from neighboring agencies — favor assistant police Chief Melanie Bevan, the only internal candidate among four finalists.

So now Kriseman, whose decision might be imminent, faces the possibility of angering a lot of people if he goes with anyone but Bevan. In a way, his courting of public opinion might have painted him into a political corner.

"I think it was well intentioned, but sometimes good intentions can lead us into some real tight and sticky places. And that's where I think Kriseman finds himself," said Eckerd College political science professor Tony Brunello. "This, in many ways, is the most pivotal public decision he has to make as mayor."

All four finalists met with Kriseman, the City Council and the public during a whirlwind day of meet-and-greets nearly three weeks ago. Now, the community is waiting to see who the mayor picks.

Kriseman has not said when he will make his announcement. He returns from vacation today.

"St. Petersburg is a good city," Brunello said. "But nothing can go wrong faster in this town than if we have a bad police chief. This has to be the right choice."

Ben Kirby, Kriseman's communication director, said the public feedback is "hugely" important to the mayor.

"I think he'll take what he hears and weigh it with each of the other pieces of the process," Kirby said. "He's not making a decision in a vacuum. It's also his discretion and judgment."

At a public forum in June, Bevan's supporters handed out stickers that read, "Keep Calm and 'Mel' On." At least two Facebook groups backing her have popped up.

Bevan's letters of support also have come from Secret Service agents, Homeland Security Department officials and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee.

That's not to say everyone favors Bevan.

Former police chief and deputy Mayor Goliath Davis said a few weeks ago that he believes Kriseman should pick an outsider. Some St. Petersburg police officers agreed.

A little more than a third of the more than 100 response cards collected at the public event listed candidate Jerry Geier, of Arizona, as the top choice.

The other two candidates, Maryland's Terrence Pierce and Connecticut's Thaddeus Reddish, weren't as popular. Many people said they were turned off by Pierce, whom they described as "arrogant." Reddish didn't get as visceral a response, nor did he get a flood of compliments.

Although community members have been invited to chime in, City Council members said they felt "muzzled" last month when they were warned they could be removed from office if they named their favorite candidate. That would amount to a recommendation, the city attorney said, which violates the charter.

That's why, at this Thursday's meeting, council member Karl Nurse plans to proposes a charter amendment that would allow council members to share their opinions about senior hiring decisions.

The last time St. Petersburg got a new police chief, Nurse said, the process was quicker and devoid of this much chatter.

Brunello, the professor, said that's partly a sign of the times. In the past, he said, a mayor might discreetly solicit opinions for such a decision.

But Kriseman, who campaigned on a mantle of transparency, has welcomed broader participation.

"It's one thing to get people to back you in campaigns," he said. "It's another thing to invite them to help you make decisions. … In political science, the most popular choice doesn't mean that's the most effective choice."

A few years ago, Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne was tasked with replacing that city's longtime police chief.

He said there was plenty of public input but the community seemed more comfortable with a national search. In addition to bringing finalists to Clearwater for interviews, Horne also traveled to the candidates' communities.

"There was no campaign per se to focus on anybody local," Horne said. "For me not to have the public be a part of the process would have been a mistake. You're never going to know everything. … The thing you have to remember is at the end of the day, you're going to make the call."

Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.

Finalists for St. Petersburg police chief

Melanie Bevan

Assistant St. Petersburg police chief

Years in law enforcement: 28

Jerry Geier

Chief of Goodyear Police Department in Arizona.

Years in law enforcement: 30

Terrence Pierce

Captain at Montgomery County Department of Police in Maryland.

Years in law enforcement: 24

Thaddeus Reddish

Recently retired assistant chief at the New Haven Police Department in Connecticut.

Years in law enforcement: 22

St. Petersburg police chief decision could be difficult for mayor 07/08/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 11:54pm]
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