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St. Petersburg police chief defends low crime statistics

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon says the numbers he uses to measure the department's success are moving in the right direction.

Violent crimes are down in the city and Midtown. Auto thefts are down nearly 50 percent. And the department has more sworn officers on the streets than ever.

But some City Council members and residents say they've never been angrier about crime. They cite reports of low morale among officers, gunshots in neighborhoods and constituents upset about drug houses that pop up down the street.

The gap between police statistics and the perception of some residents was underscored at a City Council meeting Thursday in which Harmon fielded questions from council members who declared they were fed up.

"There are a number of neighborhoods where drug dealing is common enough where most citizens see it regularly," council member Karl Nurse said in an interview Friday. "Everywhere I go, public safety is the first thing people bring up."

Harmon said he felt council members raised some legitimate concerns about public perceptions. But he pointed to figures showing dramatic decreases in most categories of serious crimes.

Auto theft is down 44.6 percent this year when compared to the first four months of last year. Aggravated assault is down 19.2 percent, and violent crime in general is down 13.1 percent.

There have been 13 homicides so far this year; there were 26 total homicides last year. But crime decreased both citywide and in the Midtown area in 2007, compared with the previous year.

"The facts are that crime is going down," Harmon said. "What we're battling is not the actual crime numbers, it's the perception of crime."

Sgt. Karl Lounge, the secretary of the Pinellas County Fraternal Order of Police, said he remains concerned because officers have to rush from one call to another.

"There's a lot of officers that are tired and burning out," he said. "Morale is down."

A study released last year by Matrix Consulting Group found that an overwhelming number of officers in the department felt they were understaffed. The department has historically had one of the lowest ratios of officers to residents among major police departments in the state.

But Harmon said that ratio is not a good way to measure a need for officers because it doesn't take into account factors such as sprawl and geography.

The department now has 520 sworn officers, about 20 more than it has usually had in recent years. It has also increased the number of directed patrols, partly because more officers are available since the end of the department's community policing program.

Not everyone says crime is getting worse.

Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said she hasn't heard complaints about crime, even though her home was broken into in November.

"The city is in a better place than where it was a year ago," Heck said. "But no, we haven't been able to eradicate all crime, and of course, everyone would like that to happen."

Mayor Rick Baker said the statistics show the department has made progress in fighting crime in recent years, but added he was open to doing more.

"You look at all the statistics, and they show the department's making great progress, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep looking at it," Baker said.

Yet some residents say the statistics don't grasp the way they feel about crime in their neighborhoods.

Casimiro Rael, a former president of North Kenwood Association, maps crime in his neighborhood and e-mails the results to his neighbors. He says whenever he and his neighbors call police, officers say the crime isn't significant enough to look into.

"I think we are taking 10 steps backward. People have given up reporting and calling in," he said.

Council Chairman Jamie Bennett said he understands such concerns. A murder has the power to unnerve an entire neighborhood.

"Are the crime statistics down? Yes, those numbers are very encouraging," Bennett said. "But it is not encouraging when there is a murder down the street."

Bennett said he sometimes hears complaints from residents about police, but added: "In general, people do feel safer. Things are in good shape."

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472

St. Petersburg police chief defends low crime statistics 05/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 2, 2008 4:34pm]
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