Tale of two cities: Crime is up in St. Petersburg, down in Tampa

Crime in Tampa dropped 18 percent in the first half of 2009. It has been falling sharply for five years. The police chief has been lauded for it. So has the mayor who hired him.

But across the bay in St. Petersburg, break-ins and thefts are rising this year. Total crime is up 9 percent. Even the mayor's house isn't safe. The mayoral candidates debate whether to keep the soft-spoken police chief.

That begs the question: Why are two cities so close in proximity and lifestyle seeing such different numbers? How did Tampa become the Metropolis to St. Petersburg's Gotham City?

Some differences are obvious.

Tampa is the bigger city, but it has more officers per resident. Its officers are paid more. Its police chief is more independent, more respected.

Whereas in St. Petersburg, seemingly everyone takes shots at the chief — even his own officers. Politically, the chief never strays far from City Hall. The union demands more aggressive tactics to no avail.

Tampa police Chief Stephen Hogue and St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon lead differently. Their officers police differently. Their departments work differently.

Yet the chiefs' crime-fighting philosophies are similar — even if the results aren't.

• • •

Crime in both cities in recent years, just like crime nationally, has been going down. Tampa once had a much higher crime rate, but it fell below St. Petersburg's in 2005 and has been dropping since.

Hogue said blame has no place in police work.

So, when Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio named Hogue to lead the city's police force in 2003, he eliminated the usual law enforcement scapegoats — schools, courts — by asking his majors what they needed to reduce crime.

"I gave them everything they asked for," he said. "Then, it was on them to make it work. There are no excuses."

The command staff asked for what Hogue now calls "three little police forces." He divided the special drug and vice squads among the three patrol districts.

The chief had officers keep tabs on 100 juvenile offenders Hogue called "the worst of the worst."

"Self-initiated" calls for police officers were emphasized. No more waiting for dispatch. Officers had to find problems themselves and solve them.

In 2003, 55 percent of police calls came from a dispatcher and 45 percent were initiated by an officer. By 2008, the pendulum had swung: 36 percent were dispatched and 63 percent were self-initiated.

His crime analysts and officers focused daily on four crimes: burglary, robbery, auto burglary and auto theft — hence the department's "Focus on Four" plan.

"We find that those people who commit these four crimes also commit your rapes, murders, thefts," Hogue said. "They're criminals. Criminals don't tend to specialize."

The department credits this approach with a 46 percent drop in seven categories of serious crimes over five years. Those statistics are based on numbers law enforcement agencies report to the state.

And Tampa's statistics were backed up by a 2007 Florida Department of Law Enforcement audit requested by state Sen. Ronda Storms.

Jane Castor, Tampa's assistant police chief, said it would be hard to take Tampa's approach and expect it to work as successfully everywhere else.

"Every city has unique crime issues," she said. "They have different resources available. We happen to have high officer-to-citizen ratio. We have very strong political backing, very strong backing from the neighborhood."

• • •

St. Petersburg's police chief doesn't like to point fingers, either. But Harmon also doesn't believe that fighting crime is his department's job alone.

He says it all the time: Alert neighborhoods, more jobs and engaged schools help reduce crime, too.

"It's reality," Harmon said. "It's not an excuse to not go out and do your job."

But the chief did have some new things to say about rising crime in his city.

Property crimes jumped 10 percent in the first half of 2009, capturing the attention of residents and mayoral candidates.

In the past, Harmon has blamed the problem on the economy. But now he also cites a new culprit:

"The raw numbers of crime in St. Pete went up because we annexed property," the chief said.

Specifically, he said it was due to business and industrial properties the city added near Ulmerton Road.

Harmon also pointed out that his department has had its share of success. In 2008, his detectives rounded up the city's most prolific juvenile car thieves. That year vehicle thefts dropped 63 percent — or 855 fewer thefts.

And Harmon lamented that no one seems to talk about one fact: Last year St. Petersburg's crime rate was at its lowest — 7,465.2 crimes per 100,000 residents — in 30 years.

• • •

In fact, Harmon said the Tampa Police Department's methods are very familiar.

"It's my belief that in some form or fashion we've done everything they're doing," the chief said.

So why the disparity?

St. Petersburg police Sgt. Karl Lounge, a union leader, said the difference is as simple as this: "manpower, manpower, manpower."

St. Petersburg has 541 officers, the most in city history, and hopes to add more with federal money.

But Tampa has nearly twice that many officers, 981, and can hire up to 996.

In St. Petersburg the ratio is 2.2 officers per every 1,000 residents. In Tampa, it's 2.9.

"If we had more officers, we could handle more calls," Lounge said. "We could be more specialized."

Instead, Lounge said, specialized units end up cannibalizing officers from regular patrols.

But Harmon said he has the studies to prove his department is properly staffed. He also said ratios are a bad indicator of staffing levels.

Instead, he said to look at the response times. The average response to a top-priority call is 5.5 minutes this year, improved 2 percent from 2008.

Harmon also has been criticized for not being more aggressive, specifically for not allowing his officers to chase more suspects when they drive away.

In St. Petersburg, police cruisers can chase only those offenders who have committed violent felonies or pose an immediate threat to the community.

Tampa allows officers to chase car thieves who haven't committed violent offenses.

The fact that St. Petersburg doesn't has emboldened the city's criminals, Lounge said.

St. Petersburg also doesn't allow or train patrol officers to knock a vehicle off the road.

Tampa's policy gives officers more leeway to stop fleeing vehicles using techniques such as spinning a vehicle off the road with their cruisers, blowing out tires with spiked sticks or boxing-in a fleeing driver.

Harmon said specialized units in St. Petersburg can use those tactics. However, high-speed chases are too dangerous to the public, he said. His chase policy is to protect lives.

"I know it's frustrating," the chief said. "But I think there needs to be a balance between catching the bad guys and the community's need to be safe."

• • •

Neither chief had much to say about the other's city.

Harmon wondered if comparing the crime rates of St. Petersburg and Tampa was fair.

Despite their proximity, he said, they have many differences: different geographies, different downtowns, different court systems.

"It's not really an apples-to-apples comparison," Harmon said. "I would say Tampa is best off when Tampa compares itself to Tampa."

But he did congratulate Tampa on its success.

Hogue, who belongs to a state retirement program that will require him to step down by April, said he had no advice for St. Petersburg or its police chief.

"To be honest with you, I'm not over there," he said. "I don't see what's going on …

"St. Pete's a little different animal than Tampa."

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

Tale of two cities: Crime is up in St. Petersburg, down in Tampa 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 8:46pm]

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