Sunday, November 19, 2017
Politics

St. Petersburg: Police Chief Chuck Harmon finds himself in the crosshairs in mayor's race

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ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral hopefuls Rick Kriseman and Kathleen Ford both think the city's police force is rife with problems that start at the top and stem from a lack of leadership from police Chief Chuck Harmon.

In debates, interviews and stump speeches, Ford and Kriseman have vowed to revamp the department if they win the city's top job. They have criticized the agency's relationship with the black community, cited low morale and splintered ranks, and lambasted the controversial pursuit policy.

If elected, Kriseman and Ford said they would consider hiring a new chief from outside the city.

"Individually, if you look at the men and women serving, we have great people," Kriseman said. "They are not working together as a team."

It's an opinion Ford shares.

"We have incredibly dedicated men and women on the force," she said. "I just think it's a lack of leadership at this time."

The crosshairs are familiar to Harmon, who also was a target during the 2009 mayoral election. He ultimately decided to stay after Bill Foster was elected.

With crime rates down, Harmon said the candidates have no choice but to attack him.

"Public safety is important to people," he said. "I think that these political candidates are uninformed. That's a shame. They think they score points with voters."

Few issues invoke more responses in campaigns than those involving public safety.

Ford said she thinks there is a difference in the way police officers behave in different parts of the city. For example, she said Midtown residents have to worry about officers pursuing suspects at night without using lights and sirens, or even headlights.

Harmon confirmed Friday that his agency is conducting an internal affairs investigation into those allegations. However, he stressed that it appears to be an isolated incident. He provided records that showed officers have been accused of speeding only 10 times in the past five years.

Officers will be held accountable if they violated any procedures, he said.

"They were probably doing something they shouldn't have been doing," Harmon said. "We take this stuff pretty seriously."

Calls to improve Midtown — St. Petersburg's historically black district — are common in stump speeches. It's standard for candidates to discuss reducing crime and making life safer for all city residents.

On the campaign trail, Ford said she's heard many gripes.

When gunshots ring out in Midtown, residents don't report them because officers don't respond, Ford said. She also said she hears parents say they keep their children inside after 6 p.m. because it's not safe.

"Folks gave up on calling. No one comes," Ford said. "Now there is no data to prove that. No report was ever taken."

Harmon scoffed at the notion that officers don't respond.

"We respond to any call we get," he said. "We have plenty of people out there. I don't know what she is talking about."

Besides calling 911, residents can report crime or suspicious behavior on confidential tip lines, he said. Harmon acknowledged that the department is working to educate residents who have concerns about making complaints.

This year tension intensified in the black community after a string of high-profile chases and two cases where officers shot at people in cars.

The department, according to Ford and Kriseman, carries a stigma of officers not respecting residents. Officers should show residents the same respect they expect, Ford said.

The accusation did not sit well with Harmon.

"I vehemently disagree with that," he said, his voice rising. "One of our tenets is respect. I hold their feet to the fire on that."

Ford and Kriseman also have said they want Harmon to change the department's approach to community policing. Both prefer a method where an officer is assigned to every neighborhood, a strategy Harmon scrapped in 2006.

Ford also has decried what she calls "Impala Fridays," when the department's top leaders are off "playing golf or doing whatever" away from work.

"That doesn't set a real good example, I don't think," Ford said. "In that again, it's leadership. It's articulating your vision of expecting everyone to put in a good day's work."

Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said the department is no different than other companies where employees are allowed to take vacation days on Fridays.

"If they don't take the days, they lose them," Proffitt said.

Ultimately, any top-to-bottom reorganization of the cop shop will be up to voters, first in the primary on Aug. 27, then in the general election on Nov. 5.

Regardless of who leads the city for the next four years, Harmon won't be able to stay long.

He must retire by May 2015.

His job will be safe with Foster.

The mayor said he has the "utmost respect" for the department. He denied that the support is tied to the police unions' backing and providing of foot soldiers for campaign events.

Foster reiterated that Kriseman and Ford are offering criticism, not solutions. He said both have "no clue" about what goes on in the department.

"They're engaging in political policing," Foster said. "They're not done yet. It's their job to say the sky is falling. They want my job."

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