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Police chief defends his record on crime in St. Petersburg

A year after the murders of his son and a friend, Robert Gordon is waiting for answers. He says the police stopped returning his calls. Jabar McNair and Mishell McDaniel were shot and set on fire.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

A year after the murders of his son and a friend, Robert Gordon is waiting for answers. He says the police stopped returning his calls. Jabar McNair and Mishell McDaniel were shot and set on fire.

ST. PETERSBURG — Jabar McNair and his pregnant girlfriend were shot dead and set on fire.

A year later, his father still searches for answers. But police won't return his calls, he said. They're too busy with other murders.

"There was a hole in his head so big I could almost put two fists in it," Robert Gordon said of his 26-year-old son. "I'm asking you guys to please, please help our community."

He wasn't the only one at City Hall who wanted answers.

With community fears mounting amid a series of convenience store robberies, shootings and home burglaries, police Chief Chuck Harmon made a rare appearance before the City Council on Thursday to reassure the public that he is doing his job.

He cited statistics to show that St. Petersburg has become a safer place to live and work under his seven-year tenure. He also offered some insight into his department's crime-fighting tactics during the two-hour council workshop.

Still, council members said the perception that the Police Department is ineffective or shorthanded won't change unless Harmon and his officers establish relationships with residents and regularly assure the public that crime will not be tolerated.

"I want to see you out there and hear from you," said council member Leslie Curran. "I want to see police officers just talking to people and I think that would be a huge help in building confidence."

Council member Karl Nurse put it this way after the meeting: "Somebody in town has to communicate that I am the law and if you commit crime I am coming after you. I don't think he really understands why that's part of his job."

Harmon pledged to communicate more frequently with the council but stressed that he will never be able to completely fill the public in on his department's activities because he must protect his officers, victims and the integrity of open investigations.

Tension between the City Council and the Police Department has been building since Harmon promised to provide periodic updates on his department's strategies during a heated council meeting last year, then never followed through.

At City Hall and at neighborhood meetings, council members griped about unsolved murders and the department's seemingly unfocused fight on crime. And, in the weeks leading to Thursday's workshop, promised to hold Harmon accountable.

But on Thursday, council members seemed sympathetic, even praising the department's proactive policies.

"It's a tough job and they do an incredible, more than incredible job," said council member Bill Dudley.

Harmon, it turns out, nullified many of the council's concerns in a series of pre-emptive, private meetings he arranged Tuesday and Wednesday.

Asked about the meetings, Harmon said he wanted to brief members individually about issues he could not disclose publicly, including strategies to solve the convenience store shootings.

Nurse, one of the department's fiercest critics, said Harmon was persuasive.

"The truth is they are doing a lot more than they communicate," he said. "I find that very reassuring."

The council didn't completely back down.

Council Chairman Jeff Danner said the Police Department's continual message that residents need to be alert about crime, lock their doors and avoid seedy areas is sage, but insulting to victims.

"It's sort of dismissive," Danner said. It "makes people feel like the blame is on them."

Council member Wengay Newton was near tears as he described late night phone calls from victims inquiring about unsolved crimes.

"I get parents calling me with murdered kids and I ain't really got no answer for them," he said. "And when you talk to us it is pretty much the same."

Harmon said that while statistics might not be comforting, they help guide his policies.

To combat violent crime — down 12 percent in 2008 compared to the year before — the chief said his officers seized 346 guns last year. That's nearly one firearm a day.

Technology also has helped curb crime, he said. New equipment allows officers to start their days in the field instead of checking in at headquarters first. They also have less paperwork.

Harmon says his officers have had a greater presence in the neighborhoods, citing a door-to-door campaign to nearly 4,000 homes in Childs Park to get to know residents.

But not all the statistics are good. Burglary and larceny are up, 14 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

Harmon attributed much of the rise in burglaries to a 90 percent spike in thefts of construction scraps from vacant homes in Childs Park. He also blamed the recession.

"What I would tell you is when you start seeing the economy and unemployment rates drop in the wrong direction, you will see an increase in crime," the chief said.

Even though some crime is down, Harmon urged neighborhood leaders to maintain their crime watch groups. He encouraged residents to report crimes and tips. Calls to the department's tip line have been in a steady decline since 2005.

It takes more than just the police to solve crimes, Harmon said, it takes witnesses.

Like the 2008 murder of McNair and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Mishell McDaniel.

Police said they have identified suspects in the deaths, but witnesses have refused to come forward.

Harmon insisted that his detectives have talked with Gordon about his son's murder, but couldn't say who initiated contact. Gordon said he started showing up at headquarters after police stopped returning his calls.

Standing before the council Thursday, Harmon ordered all of his detectives to stay in touch with the families of homicide victims at least once a month.

He also showed more of what the council wants to see: that the chief of police can relate to more than just numbers.

"If someone did that to my son," Harmon said, "I wouldn't rest."

Police chief defends his record on crime in St. Petersburg 02/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 6:40am]

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