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St. Petersburg's next mayor might not see eye to eye with police chief

ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Foster wants his officers to focus on smaller crimes to prevent bigger ones. He wants to put up security cameras, train city workers to spot criminals and give officers the power to chase the ones who flee.

Kathleen Ford wants her police force to use up-to-the-minute crime statistics to find and tackle hot spots. She thinks if the city had hired more police during the boom years, St. Petersburg wouldn't have the crime problem it does now.

Both mayoral candidates promise to find the money to hire more officers — and put them back on the neighborhood beat like they used to be.

Sound like good ideas? Police Chief Chuck Harmon thinks so. Many already are in place at the St. Petersburg Police Department, he said, the rest just won't work.

The next mayor will have to learn that it takes more than just officers and good ideas to fight crime, Harmon said.

"We're on track to make 16,000 arrests this year, the most we've ever made," Harmon said. "I don't think the problem is catching the bad guys. The problem is that we're arresting them over and over and over again."

• • •

When Mayor Rick Baker took office in 2001, crime was up and officers were leaving in droves to work for better-paying, better-equipped agencies.

Harmon, who was actually Baker's second choice for the job, rose from patrol officer to guide the department's largest expansion.

In the past decade, the police budget increased more than 50 percent to $87 million. Much of that went to boost salaries and benefits, Harmon said, to improve officer retention. Officers also got more tools: AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and nonlethal Tasers.

The crime rate also fell for five straight years.

Stimulus funding — which the chief at first resisted — brought 10 new positions to a force that had to cut five jobs. The city now has 545 officer positions, five are vacant.

But numbers don't tell the whole story.

A series of violent crime has gripped the city: a chain of murders in 2008, this year's convenience store shootings and the nearly fatal shootings of two officers.

Midtown is still plagued by drugs and violence. And this year outrage followed the slaying of two girls, ages 8 and 15, shot dead within weeks of each other on the same Bartlett Park street.

Crime also is creeping up again, all of which has put the chief under a microscope in an election year.

Reported crime is up 11 percent in the first eight months of 2009 compared to the same period last year. The main culprit is a 13 percent rise in property crimes.

But the biggest challenge, Harmon said, may be the economy.

"Combatting crime is still the central mission," Harmon said, "but you're also battling the budget."

• • •

The "Foster Formula" calls for police to target guns and drugs and temporarily install security cameras in high-crime areas.

"I'm not going to make that decision alone," Foster said of the cameras. "But it's worked in other communities and I think it's kind of an extension of the range of a police officer."

Foster, 46, an attorney and former City Council member, wants to train city workers to be the eyes and ears of the police because most property crimes take place during the day.

On the campaign trail, Foster stresses "broken windows" policing.

Foster mostly has supported Harmon during the campaign. And Harmon appears receptive to working for Foster.

But they're not exactly on the same page. Harmon doesn't like the idea of security cameras, for example, and he said his agency already practices "broken windows" policing.

Then there's the chase policy.

Foster wants to modify the chase policy to give officers more discretion in chasing suspects. Harmon is emphatic that his policy is safest for the public because it only allows officers to chase the most dangerous suspects.

Still, Foster said Tuesday: "I've got 100 percent confidence in Chief Harmon."

Harmon's relationship with Ford, on the other hand, is more problematic. He's accused her of spreading "misinformation" during the campaign. Most notably, he said she helped spread a rumor that drugs were being sold out of a murder victim's home.

Would she keep Harmon?

"I'll evaluate everybody and decide," she said. "I'm just concerned that the high crime in Midtown hasn't been addressed."

Ford, 52, a lawyer and former City Council member, stresses greater cooperation with other agencies and wants to put more officers in schools.

Ford said she'll stress "intelligence-based" policing, relying more on data analysis, informants and surveillance to deter the repeat offenders who commit the majority of crimes.

Harmon said his agency is already using that model, too.

But for all their differences, her agenda is closer to Harmon's thinking than Foster's.

Ford supports Harmon's chase policy. And like the chief, she doesn't like Foster's idea of using security cameras. Harmon, on the other hand, supports her idea of using red light cameras.

"It may take four or more officers to work a red light operation," Harmon said. "If I can reduce accidents there when those officers aren't there, it frees them up to do something else."

• • •

The biggest difference between the chief and the two candidates is community policing.

St. Petersburg once assigned officers to specific neighborhoods. They went to meetings, dealt with crime, even chaperoned school dances.

Harmon ended that in 2006. Some officers had easier jobs than others, so morale was a problem.

Foster and Ford both say they want to go back to the old model, where residents got to know officers better. It's a major ideological split that further raises questions about Harmon's future.

Harmon, 49, said he wants to stay on — but only if he and the mayor are on the same page.

"If they want to micromanage the Police Department to the extent that I can't run it, that's a deal breaker," Harmon said. "They need to trust the chief, whoever that is, to run the Police Department."

St. Petersburg's next mayor might not see eye to eye with police chief 10/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 11:59pm]
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