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In reversal, St. Petersburg police chief faces cameras

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon stood before a cadre of cameras Tuesday afternoon. He sounded determined.

"We need to get this … man off the street," Harmon said about a serial robber police call Zorro the Bandit.

The news conference was an unusual move for Harmon, who has been criticized for being too muted and uninspiring during violent crime waves.

Harmon acknowledged Tuesday that he must be more visible to the public when violent crime grips the city. The news conference about Zorro the Bandit was a first step.

"I think you're going to see me from time to time," Harmon said. "It's probably not bad to see my face out there."

Last week, Harmon went before the City Council to address what some have perceived as a surge in crime, including a series of armed robberies in which convenience store clerks have been shot. The crime wave crested last month when an undercover detective was shot several times as he tried to arrest an armed robbery suspect.

Though Harmon told council members that statistics show violent crime has decreased under his tenure, some requested he be more open about what police are doing to address and solve crime. Harmon warned that he didn't want to disclose details that might compromise open investigations.

Harmon said he turned to trusted friends for feedback after the criticism. They agreed he could be a more visible leader.

Then opportunity arose.

The department's top brass was having its weekly meeting Monday when Zorro the Bandit was mentioned.

Detectives think the robber — who wears a fedora and a skullcap — has robbed seven Tampa Bay stores in the past month, including three in St. Petersburg.

The department's leadership realized they had a good description, which meant the public could help with tips. They also had good surveillance video, which meant the media would pick up the story. They came up with a plan to have a news conference with Harmon out front.

On Tuesday, reporters noticed the change. One asked why Harmon was at a news conference about a string of robberies where no one had been hurt.

Harmon said he has always tried to be a voice and a face on matters of policy and internal affairs.

Now, he says, he'll put himself out front when confronted with significant crimes, too. He pledged to challenge police norms of not releasing information about open investigations. He said he realizes the public needs reassurance that the police are working.

"It's always a learning process," he said in an interview after the news conference. "You evaluate, you redo, and you try to do better."

In 2001, when Harmon was appointed chief, he described himself as the "bland candidate" and as someone who didn't seek the spotlight. The city was looking for a quiet leader after dismissing chief Mack Vines, who had sparked outrage by describing an arrested black man as an "orangutan."

But after the latest crime wave, it seemed the city pined for a character more like Grady Judd, the Polk County sheriff who holds frequent news conferences in which he denounces suspects and promises results.

City Council member Karl Nurse, who has been an outspoken critic of the chief's terse approach, said he hopes Harmon realizes he must reassure the public.

"The hope would be that you would both make honest people less afraid and criminals more afraid," Nurse said.

Harmon said he won't break from a professional demeanor just to please the public, but he will be more front and center.

"I think there's a message to be sent from time to time," he said. "If you're going to go out and commit armed robberies and point guns at people, we're going to take that pretty seriously and we're going to do everything in our power to take you off the street."

Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

A Zorro in sunglasses

Police say Zorro the Bandit has held up seven local businesses in the past month. In each, the man has approached the counter to check out and then used a small silver handgun to demand money. No one has been hurt. The robber is a black man, 40 to 50 years old, 5 feet 6 to 5 feet 9, and weighs 170 to 180 pounds. He wears a bandanna, sunglasses and a dark hat. Police say he drives a 1990s four-door white Buick LeSabre with dark tint­ed windows. The right rear fender appears to have primer marks or damage. Call tips to the St. Petersburg police at (727) 893-7179.

In reversal, St. Petersburg police chief faces cameras 02/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 10:12am]
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