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St. Petersburg mayor's race revives community policing debate

ST. PETERSBURG — Something changed when police stopped walking a beat and started driving cars.

They forgot your name. They forgot where you lived. They forgot they should know things like that.

"The police car and the police radio was basically a major revolution," said criminology professor William Ruefle of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "But it really hurt the communication and trust and dialogue between the police and the public."

Community policing is about re-establishing that. It's getting officers out of their cars and back onto the streets talking to, and getting to know, people again.

For 15 years St. Petersburg police officers got to know a lot of people. The department practiced a form of community policing unlike any other city in Florida: Neighborhoods were assigned their own officer.

Then police Chief Chuck Harmon did away with the program in 2006. Those officers sometimes ignored their responsibilities and abused their freedom, the chief said, and they were resented by their comrades.

But community policing never went away. It changed, the chief said, for the better.

But some of the people running for mayor might want to change it back.

• • •

The city's first community policing project put three officers in crime-ridden Jordan Park in 1989.

Two years later, then-Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger expanded the program. The city was divided into 43 community policing areas. A community police officer, or CPO, was assigned to each area.

They patrolled their areas on foot, bike or golf cart. They attended meetings, called code enforcement, even supervised teen dances.

They were the problem-solvers. If vice officers made a prostitution arrest on a dark street corner, the community officer would get the street lights fixed.

USF St. Petersburg police Lt. Reggie Oliver walked that first beat in Jordan Park back in 1989 when he was a city police officer. The advantages of the program, he said, were obvious to residents.

"They had their own police chief," he said." They always had someone they could go directly to."

So why shut it down?

• • •

As Harmon put it: "It became an us-against-them mentality."

CPOs had the ability to set their own schedules. But some were doing it to suit themselves, not residents, the chief said. They had the flexibility, say, to work lucrative overtime shifts at Devil Rays games at Tropicana Field. Other officers couldn't do that.

Some CPOs also lacked accountability, the chief said. Residents' calls weren't returned, complaints weren't addressed, neighborhood association meetings were skipped — and neighborhood presidents were reluctant to complain.

"They wouldn't want to call and report them because they didn't want to alienate the (officers)," Harmon said.

Some community and patrol officers even fought over who should handle which problems. A barking dog at midnight? Should the patrol officer on duty handle it, or leave it to the CPO in the morning?

"It led to finger-pointing over whose job it was to deal with it," Harmon said.

• • •

But the idea that neighborhoods should have their own officers has never quite gone away. It was popular then, and it's an election year now.

Several mayoral candidates said they still support the one-officer, one-neighborhood concept.

That includes current council member Jamie Bennett, former council members Kathleen Ford and Larry Williams and political activist Ed Helm.

"I liked the community police officer who knew the neighborhood, attended neighborhood meetings and followed up on calls," Ford said.

Real estate investor Scott Wagman said he would decide that issue after his election, after he picks a new police chief and revamps police strategy. Restaurateur John Warren said he's heard complaints about the old system but also wants to examine the issue more.

Former council member Bill Foster, though, said he supports the current community policing system, the one that replaced the model that was scrapped in 2006. So does corporate executive Deveron Gibbons. "I understand the chief's desire to have a broad-based effort to have the entire force accountable to the community policing philosophy," Gibbons said.

Turns out the current system has its fans, too.

• • •

Getting rid of CPOs wasn't a popular decision back in 2006, said Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

"The neighborhoods loved their community police officers," she said. "But for the most part it was a very, very good change for the neighborhoods."

The 41 CPOs were replaced by 12 community service officers, or CSOs. Their job is to attend all the neighborhood meetings and return calls made to the non-emergency community hotlines within 24 hours.

Chief Harmon said the CSOs have returned 15,000 calls since December 2006 and only missed the 24-hour window a handful of times.

But, as the chief always likes to say, community policing is the job of the entire department. That's why there's an alphabet soup of programs:

Under the FOCUS initiative, beat officers are given problem-solving responsibilities. The Community Police and Engagement, or CAPE project, floods neighborhoods with officers to go door-to-door, gather intelligence, then go after criminals. Operation Safe Summer keeps tabs on juveniles and young adults.

• • •

The current model might be more efficient, but some say the old system was more personable.

Allendale crime watch coordinator Nina Light said the current crop of CSOs are "pretty good" at answering calls and helping people out. But 2 1/2 years later, she said, residents still pine for their old CPOs.

"When we had our own neighborhood policeman, he knew the neighborhood, he knew what was out of whack," she said. "Everybody seemed to like it better when we knew our policeman and our policeman knew us."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg mayor's race revives community policing debate 08/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 3, 2009 12:06am]

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