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St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon's job security hangs on next mayor

ST. PETERSBURG — This town used to go through police chiefs like the Bucs change quarterbacks.

Then along came Charles Edwin "Chuck" Harmon Jr.

Ambitious and loyal, he pushed his way up the ranks to become St. Petersburg's longest-serving police commander in two decades.

He took office to low expectations. Harmon's predecessor, disgraced by a racial gaffe, lasted 73 days. To stay out of trouble, all Harmon had to do was keep his mouth shut.

It was a simple task for a hulking man uncomfortable in the public glare, and one that critics say he took too much to heart.

For seven years, Harmon has led quietly, deliberately, the silent partner to a mayor who soaks up the spotlight. He has reduced crime, eased departmental tensions and made amends with onetime foes, all the while never raising his voice or lashing out.

But the low-pitch style that helped Harmon sidestep the self-inflicted wounds that tripped so many chiefs before him may now be the trait that hurts him most.

A new mayor will be elected in November, and public safety already has become a campaign touchstone.

Aware of the shifting political tide, Harmon, 49, has vowed to become the sympathetic leader the city needs. In the weeks since he was publicly criticized by the City Council for not being more reassuring, Harmon has reached out to neighborhood leaders, soothed city leaders and faced the cameras to denounce thugs on television.

It still might not be enough to save his job.

• • •

Harmon's introduction to law enforcement started early.

His grandfather, Lt. Herbert Ancel Wyatt, served with the Spartanburg, S.C., police from the 1950s to the '70s. When Harmon's family would visit, Wyatt took his grandson to the city jail, let him sit on police motorcycles and entertained him with crime-fighting tales.

Harmon joined the department after graduating from Florida State University in 1982 with a degree in criminology.

As a rookie, Harmon was commended for tackling a fleeing burglary suspect.

"He was very mature for a young officer," said Reggie Oliver, a former police major who went to the police academy with Harmon. "If he had an opportunity to take a leadership role, he was not afraid to step into that position."

Harmon was promoted to sergeant (1990), lieutenant (1996), major (1998) and then assistant chief (2000.)

But chief?

"I never aspired to this position," Harmon said. "But when the opportunity came up, if it wasn't me, I didn't know who else it would be. I knew the most successful chiefs come from (inside).

"So I kind of saw it as my responsibility."

Harmon wasn't Mayor Rick Baker's first choice.

Baker tapped Mack Vines, who had served as a police commander from 1974 to 1981. Vines was dismissed a few months later for using the word "orangutan" to describe a black suspect.

Baker turned to his runner-up. After 17 years in the department, Harmon was finally top cop.

• • •

Harmon oversees the nearly 800 employees that make up Florida's third-largest urban police department.

He signs off on disciplinary actions, pushes for the newest and best equipment for his officers and serves as the face of the most controversial department in the city.

He took heat in 2005 when his officers handcuffed an unruly 5-year-old girl at an elementary school.

He came under fire the following year when he eliminated community policing, calling it an expensive and ineffective strategy.

And in 2007, he found himself under the nation's glare when police slashed homeless tents.

Each time, Harmon took to the neighborhood meetings and the cameras, however reluctantly.

Even his most ardent supporters said he lacks the social grace and charm most public officials rely on to keep them in office.

"If you're looking for a public relations guy, Chuck Harmon is not your guy," said mayoral contender Deveron Gibbons. "But if you're looking for a nuts-and-bolts guy, Chuck Harmon has done that."

While Baker freely spouts off about the "poisons" of drugs, violent video games and prostitution, Harmon has shied away from opining on high-profile crimes or criminals.

"He's invisible," said council member Wengay Newton. "A lot of people don't know who the chief is during these seven years."

Harmon prefers to cultivate relationships out of the public eye.

He gave his cell phone number to Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

He spoke to troubled teenagers at a Childs Park basketball tournament.

He shrugs off death threats.

"He is unflappable," said Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, a onetime police chief. "He's steady Eddie. You don't excite him or anger him easily."

Harmon said his public demeanor is deliberate.

"You can't see a police chief getting upset, getting emotional about an issue and not expect the officers to react similarly," Harmon said. "As dispassionate as I can make (officers) about the issues, the better they serve the community."

• • •

Under Harmon's tenure, officers won increased benefits, the right to take home their police cruisers and carry Tasers and AR-15 assault rifles.

Still, the rank and file give Harmon mixed reviews.

"I would have to say he's been average as a chief of police," said Sgt. Karl Lounge, a union leader. "We could do better, but we could do worse."

This year, the department expects to be at its budgeted maximum of 540 sworn officers for the first time.

Reports of violent crime have gone down since 2002, while arrests have climbed. In 2008, violent crime dropped 12 percent compared to the year before. Property crimes rose just 1.4 percent.

But critics fear the Police Department is merely responding to 911 calls, that Harmon is no strategist.

There was the string of unprovoked murders in 2008, the taxicab shootings last summer and the recent convenience store shootings.

Six people — including an undercover detective — were wounded by gunfire in those robberies.

Harmon's critics blame his reluctance to ask for help. They believe that 540 officers isn't enough.

"I worked the midnight shift," Lounge said. "There were not enough officers to handle all the calls and never mind the other things we should be doing."

• • •

But the greatest outcry involves Harmon's ability to confront crime perceptions.

"He's a smart man, he knows a lot about police work," said mayoral candidate Paul Congemi, a homeless advocate who wants to replace Harmon. "But we have had in this city for many years, decade after decade, a drug problem. … The good people who live in those neighborhoods, they keep asking the police for help."

Of seven mayoral candidates, only council member Jamie Bennett said he would definitely keep Harmon. "Harmon has a job as long as he is performing and doing a good job," he said.

• • •

The responsibility can be jarring sometimes.

"I've been on call for 14 years," Harmon said. "Even if I'm out of state, you're still calling in, you're still trying to find out what's going on, because at the end of the day I know I'll be held accountable."

He has six years until retirement, and yet he's not ready to go.

"I think the lesson I've learned out of this is when we have a situation in the community, people want to see me more and be reassured that we're doing something," the chief said. "That's not a problem. I will do that."

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon's job security hangs on next mayor 03/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 6, 2009 12:26pm]
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