For the past two years, the city has grappled with the hidden cost of a booming downtown scene.
Overtime for police officers who patrolled the large weekend crowds skyrocketed to 300 hours a month. City leaders held countless meetings and created regulations for bars that wanted to stay open later. They prodded business owners to pitch in for security themselves, a plan that fell apart over and over.
Police officials now think they've finally solved the problem with a simple shift change.
"I'm not even sure we're getting any overtime from downtown anymore," said St. Petersburg police Maj. Sharon "DeDe" Carron, whose district includes downtown. "It's very minimal."
Carron and her boss, police Chief Chuck Harmon, credit the department's new "relief" squad with virtually eliminating downtown overtime.
Response times also are improving, she said.
Response times for late afternoon and evening, for both priority and nonemergency calls, had become an issue because there weren't as many officers to respond to incidents during the day because they were spending more time policing at night.
The 12-officer relief squad, put in place in February, works 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, a shift that previously didn't exist.
Now, Carron said, less than five overtime hours a week are generated from patrolling downtown.
That's a drastic drop from late last year, when Harmon told City Council members that his agency was paying for hundreds of extra hours each month. The cost to taxpayers? About $13,000 a month, the chief said.
When Harmon announced the squad, he indicated it would be a temporary experiment.
On Friday, he said the unit will stay.
Why did it take so long to come up with this solution?
"After the ordinance change, we weren't really sure what we were going to get," Harmon said. "And then we were able to use overtime, but we knew that wasn't going to be a long-term solution."
City leaders also repeatedly tried to get input from businesses. They asked bars to help pay for off-duty officers and, for a brief time, several bars formed an alliance to do that. But the effort fell apart when some establishments said they weren't getting cooperation from many of those who got the protection whether they paid or not.
"It kind of came to the point that if they weren't going to hire security, we had to do something," Carron said.
Sgt. Spyro Lefkimiotis is in charge of the new squad, made up of four officers from each of the department's three districts.
He said it is effective because officers spend the first several hours of their shift in other parts of the city, then head downtown at night.
They patrol on bikes, in golf carts and on foot, providing extra help before and after last call to an existing downtown deployment team.
And if, for instance, a bar — downtown or in other areas of the city — has a big event or crowd earlier in the week, the relief squad adjusts.
"The squad is pretty flexible," Lefkimiotis said. "They love it."
Harmon said that although overtime has been reduced, officers are still dealing with some issues downtown.
Carron and other police officers recently told City Council members they'd like to tackle the issue of glass bottles, which they said become hazardous during large events like First Friday. They also have been offering suggestions to strengthen the rules about sidewalk cafes, which present challenges on big nights downtown.
"There's a number of little challenges," Harmon said. "Things have been working well."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.