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St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon disputes mayoral candidate claims

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's top cop struck back Thursday.

Speaking before the City Council, police Chief Chuck Harmon fired back at mayoral candidates who haven't had a lot of flattering things to say about rising crime and his leadership.

"We've increased our resources, we've added crime prevention officers, we've tried new strategies," Harmon told the council. "Sometimes we're criticized as not being very aggressive.

"I think that's the furthest thing from the truth."

Harmon was referring to a "specific" yet unnamed candidate — but obviously he meant Scott Wagman. The real estate investor's recent mailer compared Tampa's drop in crime with rising crime in St. Petersburg.

Harmon said it was unfair for Wagman — who said he'll hire 100 new cops but fire the chief — to compare Tampa's six-year, 46 percent drop in crime with St. Petersburg's 9 percent rise in the first six months of 2009.

Wagman could not be reached Thursday for comment.

The chief wasn't alone. Seven months ago the council and Harmon didn't see eye to eye. But Thursday they spoke in unison, those running the city pushing back against criticism from those who want to run it.

"If we start correcting misinformation from the candidates," said council Chairman Jeff Danner, "we'll be doing that from now until November."

Yet Danner almost didn't let Harmon speak.

Harmon said he went public with his criticism of Wagman after about 20 officers complained to him about the mailer. The chief sent out a letter this week to city leaders rebutting the candidate's assertions.

Then he said council member Leslie Curran invited him to Thursday's meeting to address the mailer and a Sunday St. Petersburg Times report comparing crime issues in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

But allowing Harmon to speak would set a precedent that could open the door for all city employees to address information put out by the candidates, Danner said.

Mayor Rick Baker said Harmon was capable of discussing crime without naming a candidate or referring to campaign literature.

"We always hear, 'Let the chief be the chief,' and we want him to be more open," Curran said. "So to now not allow him the opportunity to do so, I think is completely wrong."

The City Council voted to overturn Danner's decision. They let the chief speak.

Harmon rebutted candidates' usual complaints about his community policing and chase policies, then rattled off his own talking points: Yes, property crimes are up 10 percent, but the violent crime rate is steady, murders are down and his officers are working hard.

He also pointed out that his department is on track to make 16,000 arrests this year — a city record.

And Harmon wanted to add context to comments he made about annexation's effect on crime in Sunday's Times. The chief said annexation alone is not to blame for rising crime — it is just one of many factors that can raise or lower a city's crime rate.

But there may have been good reason Thursday to have postponed this entire discussion:

Tampa, after all, was mourning an officer killed in the line of duty Wednesday night. Was it really appropriate for St. Petersburg's leaders to be wringing their hands about crime rates the next day?

But no one seemed to think it was a bad time to talk about these issues. The council and police chief all offered condolences to Tampa and the officer's family.

Then Mayor Baker asked for a moment of silence.

"It's a nightmare that all of us hope we never have to face," he said.

Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon disputes mayoral candidate claims 08/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 12:18am]
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