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Bars stay open to 3, St. Petersburg pays 100 hours a week OT, police chief estimates

ST. PETERSBURG — Radiating from Central Avenue out in all directions is the vibrant downtown the city long sought. Each weekend thousands pack its restaurants and bars to eat, dance and drink — and drink later, since bar hours were pushed back to 3 a.m.

But it's also costing police more time, manpower and money to keep St. Petersburg from turning into St. Yborsburg.

"Downtown's drawing more people," said police Chief Chuck Harmon, "and because the hours have changed, it's keeping more people there."

The City Council decided in May to allow an extra hour to serve alcohol, making St. Petersburg's core competitive with South Tampa, Seminole Heights and crowded, alcohol-soaked Ybor City.

Ever since, the chief said he's had to dedicate more officers to patrolling downtown St. Petersburg — officers who have to stay on after their shifts and are racking up overtime.

The department estimated that it takes an additional 100 hours of overtime a week just to patrol downtown St. Petersburg.

Downtown's popularity has even altered the way the entire city is policed: Shifts and priorities have changed to direct more resources to the heart of the city.

"I told the council when they got ready to pass their ordinance," Harmon said, "it's going to require more police resources, and it has."

Here's a look at the effects of the later bar hours:

Response times: It now takes more time for someone to call the police and have an officer dispatched in the afternoon, the chief said. That's because he's having more officers report to work later, so they can work later at night.

The new drinking hours took effect May 14. In response, the chief pushed back an entire shift of officers starting May 17.

That shift, about 20 to 30 officers, used to work from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Now they work 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. That has resulted in a jump of the average time it takes for officers to be assigned to calls from 3 to 5 p.m., according to police statistics.

For example, callers in May waited an average of 25 minutes for officers to be assigned their calls in the 3 p.m. range. By 4 p.m., it was 14 minutes and by 5 p.m. it was eight minutes.

By July, wait times dropped slightly, down to nearly 19 minutes at 3 p.m., almost 15 minutes for 4 p.m. and seven minutes for 5 p.m.

Calls for service: Police said they're getting a lot more calls from the public around the new bar hours.

From May 14 to Aug. 23 last year, there were 245 calls for service at 2 a.m. and 96 at 3 a.m.

But during that same time period this year, police said 2 a.m. calls jumped to 332. They doubled at 3 a.m., up to 194.

Lunchtime patrols: St. Petersburg is using federal money, the Justice Assistance Grant, to help pay for some of the overtime caused by the later closing.

The federal funds paid for officers to start their shifts early and walk the lunchtime beat downtown. It was an initiative Mayor Bill Foster touted in February, one aimed at reassuring business owners and shooing panhandlers away from the customers. But fewer officers are walking that beat because more are needed at night.

The chief, though, said that crackdowns on panhandling have reduced the need for officers during the day.

"Some of the problems we were having at lunchtime with panhandling we're not seeing as much of."

Overtime: The big statistic the chief threw at the council recently was this: Since the new bar hours took effect, the department is averaging 100 more overtime hours a week — and that's on downtown alone.

Maj. Sharon "DeDe" Carron, whose patrol district includes downtown, estimated that in the last two weeks of the old 2 a.m. bar hours — March 22 to April 4 — police worked 74 hours of overtime and paid out 27 overtime hours using federal grant money.

But in the first two weeks of the new 3 a.m. closing time, police overtime jumped to 200 extra hours and federally funded hours rose to 34 (officers are paid every two weeks).

It's settled down a bit since that jump. From May 31 to June 13, police worked 157 hours of overtime and 57 grant-funded hours. But extra overtime continues to be dedicated to patrolling downtown.

Who's getting the overtime? The officers on the 2 p.m. to midnight squad are often sent downtown after their shift ends to do foot patrols until 3 a.m.

Then the 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. officers get overtime for anything that keeps them downtown after closing time — dispersing crowds, making arrests or transporting prisoners. Most of the overtime is spent on what police call "high visibility" operations — making sure downtown patrons know the police are watching.

"It's just a deterrent," Carron said. "When you're standing there, they're not fighting."

That works until about 2 to 3 a.m., the major said.

"Then they're coming out of the bars," she said. "Then they're fighting with each other."

Harmon said some bars help by hiring off-duty officers, but some aren't willing to help share the costs of later hours.

"I'm not naming names," the chief said. "But they're the ones that won't meet with us, that underestimate crowds, that don't hire additional security."

The trends: While it's taking more of what police have to patrol downtown, it's not busting the department's budget.

The city is spending less overall on police overtime this year than last year. And reported crime was down 16 percent in July, compared to 2009. The chief said an active downtown hasn't resulted in an increase in crime.

However, most of the overall drop in police overtime was from earlier this year. This summer's numbers show the city is starting to spend more on overtime.

January 2010 overtime, for example, dropped by 35 percent — or $159,801 — compared to January 2009. Over a 12-month period, police estimated that overtime dropped 21 percent, or nearly $1 million.

But in May, when the new drinking hours took effect, it actually rose slightly by 2 percent from the previous May.

In June, it was up 20 percent — that's $50,467 more overtime hours than in June 2009.

This July saw a 15 percent jump, or $42,531. August overtime was up 24 percent, or $59,843.

What's next: Downtown St. Petersburg's popularity hasn't ebbed, Harmon said, not even after Pinellas County and Clearwater followed suit and pushed their bar hours back to 3 a.m., too. The chief envisions downtown could be even busier this fall. "If the Rays hit their playoff stride," Harmon said, "we're going to be spending some more overtime."

Bars stay open to 3, St. Petersburg pays 100 hours a week OT, police chief estimates 09/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 11, 2010 11:16pm]
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