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Chief Chuck Harmon is St. Petersburg's rock through tough month

ST. PETERSBURG

On Wednesday afternoon, at a news conference at police headquarters, Chief Chuck Harmon stood behind a lectern basically long enough to say only this: "I'm going to let Mike do most of the talking." • Maj. Mike Kovacsev took his place in front of the TV cameras and offered new details about the third murder of a St. Petersburg cop in less than a month. Harmon, meanwhile, slid off to the side. • A photographer started taking pictures of him. He gave a quick glance, then stiffened visibly, taking his hands out of his pockets and crossing them in front of his belt buckle. • Here, in the midst of the most trying time in the history of the St. Petersburg Police Department, was a brief but indicative snapshot of the man at the top.

Harmon, 51, didn't want to be police chief. Not as a boy growing up in Brevard County. Not in nearly 20 years of a quiet climb through the department's ranks. Not even when he was one of the four finalists for the job. He himself said he was a "bland candidate."

In the more than nine years since, critics have chided him for his milquetoast personality: A City Council member said he was "invisible," a police union official said "he doesn't have any charisma or spark," even supporters call him charmless.

These, though, are the traits that have allowed him to stay as chief for as long as he has — the longest-serving chief here in more than half a century — long enough, it turns out, to be here now, in charge for this awful, unprecedented stretch. It's his dispassionate demeanor, too, that has helped him keep it together as things fall apart.

St. Petersburg is a medium-sized city with a small-town feel, known for often fractious and cliquish relationships between public officials. Community leaders have often called on Harmon to rock the boat.

But that's not who he is. That's not his style. Don't rock the boat. Row the boat. And so he beats on.

His father worked in the space industry in Cape Canaveral. His parents were good-hearted, level-headed people, he says, and his grandfather was a cop in South Carolina. Harmon went to Florida State and studied crimin­ology and graduated in 1982. He started with the St. Petersburg police later that year.

His friends are cops. He met his wife through a fellow cop. Their first date was to see the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Next month is their 25th wedding anniversary. They have two children. He likes to fish and bowl. He golfs every Saturday at the public course at Mangrove Bay. If he misses a putt or shanks a shot, his playing partners say, he might mutter to himself but he doesn't scream or curse and he doesn't throw his clubs.

He eats salads. He smokes cigars. He huffs on a treadmill in the evenings at his home.

His career climb was steady, from sergeant to lieutenant, from major to assistant chief. His area of expertise was traffic. He never worked in internal affairs or vice and narcotics. Along the way, his evaluations called him mature even early on, self-motivated and self-controlled, a stickler for the rules, socially awkward at times but also eager to improve.

In 2001, when former Chief Goliath Davis III announced he was stepping down, Harmon didn't think of applying until Davis asked. He agreed only after his family said okay. The department didn't need an outsider to run it, he thought. He had, he thought, the best chance to get the job from within the ranks — in his view, more obligation than aspiration.

Instead, new Mayor Rick Baker picked an experienced leader, former chief Mack Vines, who had led the department from 1974 to 1981. But two months and one racial gaffe later — a regrettable comment made worse by the city's record of racial divisiveness — Baker needed another new chief.

This was not totally inconsistent with the volatile history of the position. The track record of St. Petersburg's chiefs in the 1990s was one of combative personalities and endless confrontations. One chief made it five years. Another made it two. Vines lasted 73 days.

The backup plan was Harmon. A guy who doesn't throw his clubs.

• • •

Harmon fielded questions at a Tiger Bay political club luncheon in January 2002. He had been chief for less than a month.

"The perception is that you have two choices," one citizen said. "You can follow the path of least resistance or you can put your head in the noose. Which one would you choose?"

Harmon's answer: "I just need to be careful how I balance."

In his first few months as chief, he had meetings with neighborhood associations and did radio interviews, recognizing their importance but clearly uncomfortable with the spotlight. Citizens complained privately and publicly that he was excessively centrist. Try to please everybody, they said, and ultimately please no one. They pegged him as a sort of chaperone more than a shake-it-up visionary.

"It wasn't my intent," he told a reporter about a year and a half into the job, "to come in here and do anything differently."

During his tenure, there have been unrest at BayWalk; clashes with the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, local activists who often antagonize the establishment; the high-profile handcuffing of an out-of-control 5-year-old girl in school; the slashing of homeless tents; the persistent struggle to recruit new officers and keep older ones; his much-criticized decision to change the community policing. All potential public relations pitfalls.

Like his even-keel parents, though, Harmon has been reluctant to get overly emotional, more prone to take the longer, more considered view. He opts to cite statistics in the face of senseless violence. On his watch, he has insisted, tensions have eased. Statistics show crime has dropped.

"People need to look at the facts," he told the Times in January 2009.

But sometimes, some argued, people want more than just the facts.

"Somebody in town," City Council member Karl Nurse said at the time, "has to communicate that I am the law, and if you commit crime I am coming after you." Nurse called Harmon "tone-deaf."

Six months later, the chief was back in front of the City Council: "We've increased our resources, we've added crime prevention officers, we've tried new strategies," he said. And Harmon learned that numbers alone can't soothe a city still afflicted by violent crimes.

At the meeting, Baker, the mayor, asked for a moment of silence. Two Tampa cops had been shot and killed the night before.

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

• • •

His career spans 28 years. His legacy will be defined by 28 trying days.

After Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger and canine Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz were killed Jan. 24, Harmon came to the news conference holding a ring, two bracelets and a badge, items they left behind after Hydra Lacy Jr. fatally shot them. Lacy was a fugitive hiding in an attic who ambushed officers trying to arrest him, then ambushed the officers who tried to rescue their wounded comrades.

"In my mind as a police officer," Harmon said, "this crook, this criminal, this murderer, cop killer, whatever you would like to call him, did a terrible injustice to two of my people today and two of the people that served this community."

"You could see that he had a heavy heart, that he was dealing with a difficult situation that he had never encountered before," said Reggie Oliver, a retired St. Petersburg major who is now a lieutenant for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Police Department. "But he stood strong and did whatever he had to do to present himself as the leader of the organization and to not break down."

Critics still grumbled.

He had referred repeatedly to Lacy as "the gentleman." Too deferent. Not sufficiently angry.

Four days later, at the memorial for Baitinger and Yaslowitz, a flush-faced Harmon tough-talked his way through a eulogy, speaking of Lacy as "this violent felon, this criminal, this rapist, this wife-batterer, this murderer."

The critics again: Too much. Wrong time.

Then Officer David S. Crawford was shot and killed and 16-year-old Nick Lindsey was arrested this past Monday, police said. Harmon had to go in front of the cameras again. "It stings," he said. "This killer has taken somebody very precious to us, a member of our family."

"I think he's showing a lot of strength and a lot of sensitivity," longtime local activist Lorraine Margeson said. "You get the feeling that the man at the top is feeling it just as much as we are. I have not always felt that in previous years."

"There has been progress," said Nurse, adding that Harmon has become more empathetic, less statistician.

What is it about him and his personality, Nurse was asked, that has allowed him to keep the post as chief far longer than his predecessors, and to handle the last month?

"I think part of it is that he's not a publicity hog," Nurse said. "He has a style that is non­confrontational. And so when situations are dangerous, he doesn't make them worse."

• • •

Drugs and violence, the City Council member declared, had left the city in a "near crisis." He wanted the Pinellas County sheriff to send his deputies, outsiders, into St. Petersburg to help keep it safe. He didn't think the city's own department could handle the job alone.

It was 2002. Harmon had been police chief for just months. Talk about a vote of no confidence.

That council member, by the way, was Bill Foster, now the mayor. Harmon's boss. And times, they have changed.

"He's been incredible," Foster said of Harmon. "He's been a rock that I have relied upon. I have been the emotional wreck, not that you've seen it.

"I have relied upon him, my chief, and his strength."

Nonconfrontational. Reserved. Restrained. Harmon is all of these things. But here's another part of his style: He endures.

Harmon didn't criticize Foster back in 2002. He didn't lash out. He rarely does. He dealt with it — he and the sheriff already were talking about collaborating — and he moved on.

Harmon long resisted calls from the police unions for more aggressive tactics, like giving officers a freer hand to chase criminals. Harmon thought such tactics too dangerous, but finally relented for Foster, a union ally.

And so he remains, a chief of police for a man who once thought he wasn't up to the job.

"I'm watching him walk through hell," Foster said, "and he still has the ability to lead and communicate and guide.

"It's just incredible pressure, and he's done it."

• • •

Harmon sat down at the head of a table in a conference room near his office two days after Crawford died. On the chief's right wrist were two bracelets, one that had belonged to his father, the other showing the names of Baitinger and Yaslowitz.

He has been having trouble sleeping. He has been having trouble eating.

"I was still dealing with the first one," he said. "We hadn't been down the healing path long enough for us to rebound. I don't think I'm alone in this. We're not over the first one and now we're having to deal with the second one."

He's thought about retiring.

Just not now. He promised the mayor he would stay through his first term, which ends in 2013.

"But have I thought about it?" he said. "Absolutely."

Friends can tell.

"I know it's in his head and his gut," said Bill Doniel, a golf partner and former police official. "Every night when the phone rings, it's, 'Oh my gosh, what happened?' "

"He's taking it hard," said Detective Glen Henry, who has been a friend for more than 25 years. "It's like his family. It's like losing members of his family."

In the conference room near his office, Harmon said, "If I could've gone my entire career in this Police Department without losing an officer, I would've considered my career a success."

Now?

"You almost feel like, when you've lost three officers in 30 days, you feel like you've failed. Could I have done anything to change the outcome? Most of the time the answer is no."

Still: "The questions linger. Those questions will never go away."

Is he angry?

Angry, he says, is something he seldom gets, even with this.

"I think," he said, "I get hurt."

Right now he's hurt.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Police Chief
Chuck Harmon

Age: 51

Birthplace: Rockledge (Brevard County)

Education: Rockledge High School; bachelor's degree
in criminology, Florida State University, 1982. Master's degree in public administration, Troy (Ala.) State University, 2001.

Family: He and his wife, Loris, will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in March; he has two children and a stepdaughter.

Hobbies: Golf

Time line

1982: Earns bachelor's degree in criminology from Florida State University; joined the St. Petersburg Police Department and entered police academy.

1983: Sworn in as a St. Petersburg police officer.

1986: Becomes a field training officer, overseeing rookie officers.

1990: Promoted to sergeant in the field training unit.

1994: Becomes commander of the traffic section, overseeing DUI, traffic homicide and marine units.

1996: Promoted to lieutenant.

1998: Promoted to major, assigned to oversee District III in west St. Petersburg.

1999: Promoted to assistant police chief in charge of patrol.

2001: Earns master's degree from Troy State University and is the runner-up for the job of police chief. A few months later, he gets the job after his predecessor is fired.

.FAST FACTS

Chief Chuck Harmon is St. Petersburg's rock through tough month 02/25/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 27, 2011 4:38pm]

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