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Poll: How are St. Petersburg police doing?

Source: The St. Petersburg Times hired Communications Center Inc. of Lakeland to survey 600 registered St. Petersburg voters between June 11-16. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. Percentages have been rounded up, so totals may not equal 100 percent.

DARLA CAMERON, Times

Source: The St. Petersburg Times hired Communications Center Inc. of Lakeland to survey 600 registered St. Petersburg voters between June 11-16. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. Percentages have been rounded up, so totals may not equal 100 percent.

ST. PETERSBURG — Crime is the No. 1 concern of city residents, according to a new poll by the St. Petersburg Times.

People want to see more police cars in their neighborhoods — not just racing by when something goes wrong. They want faster response times. They want to feel safe.

A random sampling of 600 registered voters showed that 22 percent rated crime as their top priority. That's consistent across race, gender and age.

But according to that same poll, the public's anxiety about crime hasn't diminished their confidence in the men and women on the front lines: the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Sixty percent of residents have a positive opinion about the city's police. Of those, 14 percent said officers are doing an "excellent" job; 46 percent rated them "good."

Only 10 percent had a negative opinion of police.

The phone poll was conducted June 11-16 for the Times by Communications Center Inc. of Lakeland. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he's not surprised by the results.

"People think the police officers are doing a good job in the community," Harmon said. "They're professional. They treat people right."

Is it contradictory for residents to say crime is their biggest worry while saluting the people tasked with combating the problem?

"I think people understand that there's a lot of complexity with crime," Harmon said. "It's more than just your police department.

"It's your economy. It's your schools. It's your employment rate. All these factors affect the crime rate."

• • •

Harmon has not lacked critics, from the unions to City Council members to the legion of candidates running for mayor.

But the poll showed that Harmon and his department also have fans.

"I think they do a good job with the resources they've got to work with," said Mark Caton, 58.

Caton lives in Historic Kenwood, where a convenience store owner was shot and robbed in December. It was the first in a string of violent robberies that gripped the city.

After the shooting, Caton said, the department helped residents start a neighborhood watch and met with them at police headquarters.

"They were good enough to have speakers present to tell us the things we need to do in order to make our neighborhood more secure," Caton said.

Northeast Park Shores resident Jeff Levy, 34, also praised the department. "The police seem to be keeping everybody in check."

But both Levy and Caton said their neighborhoods also make sure they aren't easy targets.

"We tend to keep our stuff locked up when it should be locked up," Levy said. "We watch out for each other."

• • •

Many poll respondents interviewed by the Times said they wonder if officers could be doing more, or if more officers are needed.

The department's manpower also has been an issue on the mayoral campaign trail.

"The police, I think, are doing as good as they can do," said David Sawyer, 75, who has lived in Midtown for more than half a century. "From what I hear, they're short of men and women."

Harmon said he now has 541 sworn officers — one more officer than the city budget allowed. And soon, the department could add a few more using federal money.

Sawyer said he's seen several cases of violence and shootings — including the gang-related killing of an 8-year-old girl in April — in nearby neighborhoods. But when he calls the police, Sawyer said, help doesn't always come.

"They'll ask you if anybody is hurt," he said. "Well, sometimes the police should come whether anybody was hurt or not.

"By not showing up, somebody might get hurt. That's the only problem I have."

Eileen O'Shea, 67, said she has had the same problem reporting auto burglaries near her Fifth Avenue N home.

"Twice I've called 911 and been put on hold," she said.

The retired tax auditor had tough words for the cops — and crime.

"(Crime) is getting closer and closer all the time," she said.

She said a few months ago she caught a homeless man sleeping on her porch. And she caught a thief walking away with her "Kathleen Ford for Mayor" sign.

"He said 'I'm for her,'" O'Shea said. "I said 'I'm for you putting the sign back and getting off my property.' "

The department said its response times are below the national average. The average response time to Priority One calls, or life-threatening situations, is 5.6 minutes, compared with 7 minutes nationally.

The average for Priority Two calls, such as a burglary in progress, is 7 minutes, compared with 15 nationally.

Many residents say they've seen firsthand the citywide rise in crime.

Reported crimes increased 6 percent in the city over the first five months of this year compared with the same period in 2008. That was fueled by an 8 percent jump in property crimes, while violent crime dropped slightly.

Bonnie Green, 43, has lived in Oak Park for 17 years. She has seen a home invasion and several break-ins along her block.

Police respond when something bad happens, she said, but they're not proactive.

"I only see them when they're actually chasing somebody."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Poll: How are St. Petersburg police doing? 07/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:32pm]
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