ST. PETERSBURG — Four years ago, polls showed crime was city residents' No. 1 concern heading into the mayoral election.
This year's race has been dominated by talk of economic turnarounds and the fate of the Pier. But public safety issues have remained a steady undercurrent.
Mayoral candidates Kathleen Ford and Rick Kriseman rarely let a forum or interview pass without mention of changes they'd like to see at the Police Department — specifically, its approach to community policing.
Ford and Kriseman say they want to "bring back" a method of policing that assigned a community cop to every neighborhood.
"What I've heard universally is people wanting to see us go back to that," Kriseman said.
But police Chief Chuck Harmon says the candidates' ideas about community policing are antiquated, shrouded in nostalgia and don't make sense for a modern law enforcement agency.
And he insists that in St. Petersburg, every cop is a community police officer.
"We had officers who were regularly in neighborhoods and knew of social issues that might warn them of upcoming criminal issues," Ford said. "It's not happening anymore. It's not happening in the way that it used to years ago."
Mayor Bill Foster said police do collaborate with residents and other city departments to solve public safety issues.
"My opponents use community policing as a buzz word without an understanding of the concept and with no knowledge of the neighborhood policing models use here in St. Petersburg," he said. "Community-based policing is alive and well in St. Petersburg, and will continue to evolve as best practices are further developed."
Experts say at its core, community policing is essentially an effort to connect the police to the public in a more personal way.
But drill down and the concept quickly gets murky.
"As long as this term community policing has been around, there's been these questions about what exactly it is," said Mike Scott, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.
The organization is built around the work of Herman Goldstein, whose theories about law enforcement are considered one of the central pillars of community policing.
Goldstein's method, created in the 1970s, encouraged officers not only to form relationships with the public but to be more analytical and tailor their responses to crime.
Many departments around the country responded by ordering officers to work a certain geographical area.
For 15 years, St. Petersburg had such a model, dispatching more than 40 officers to the city's neighborhoods.
But Harmon scrapped that system in 2006, saying it fractured the department. Residents were complaining officers weren't returning calls or were catering only to select residents, he said. Morale within the rank and file also dipped, he said, because of a perception that some of the neighborhood officers were essentially getting by with lighter duties.
In its place, Harmon assigned about half as many officers to each of the city's three police districts and created a service line for residents. Officers still attend neighborhood meetings.
"We did the same things we did before; we just had less people," said Officer Barry Books, who has been a community police officer in Midtown for more than 10 years. Before the change, Books dealt only with Campbell Park, a neighborhood that includes the notorious Citrus Grove housing complex.
This spring, after data showed increases in property crimes, Harmon pulled a new squad of officers together. The D.R.O.P. (Deterrence, Response, Outreach and Prevention) unit focuses on educating residents about crime patterns. The officers, who are considered detectives but wear uniforms, walk neighborhoods and deliver public service announcement-like information through social media. Books was one of the officers tapped for the squad.
But for all the department's efforts, many say tension still exists, especially in Midtown. Ford and Kriseman say residents have told them they don't feel officers know and respect them as well now.
"I have tremendous respect for the men and women who serve on the force," Kriseman said. "By no means do I hold myself out as an expert. I envision a department where the respect that is demanded from the citizens to the officer is likewise going from the officer to the citizen."
Kurt Donley, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said community policing comes up in meetings all the time.
"My ideal system is you have essentially the same police officer working in the same areas, and they get out of their cars and they get to know the community," he said. "They would know these kids by first name, and they would build a relationship and start to change the behavior. We're basically reactive at this point."
Harmon fended off similar criticism in the 2009 election. Back then, several candidates, including Ford and Foster, said they favored the old system.
But the chief said he gets far more compliments than complaints about the current system.
"I think people just remember it but don't have a concept of what it is anymore," Harmon said. "We've evolved so far from that. I think it would be antiquated and backward to go back to that. It just doesn't make any sense."
Experts say the debate around community policing isn't unique to St. Petersburg. And it probably isn't going away.
"Politics is just always in the mix," Scott said. "That's not all bad. But there will always be some kind of tension between political policing and professional policing. Community policing was created as kind of the bridge between those two."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.