Gulfport chief of police candidates each get a trial run

Lt. Robert Vincent, left, and Lt. Howard Coombs stand outside the police station on 53rd Street S. In a few months, one of them will be selected as Gulfport’s new chief of police.

PATTI EWALD | Times Correspondent

Lt. Robert Vincent, left, and Lt. Howard Coombs stand outside the police station on 53rd Street S. In a few months, one of them will be selected as Gulfport’s new chief of police.

GULFPORT

What's a city manager to do when the police chief retires and there are two veteran lieutenants qualified to fill the post?

Well, City Manager Jim O'Reilly will give each of them a shot — a four-month shot.

Lt. Robert Vincent finished up his four months as acting chief on June 1. That's when Lt. Howard Coombs took over.

While it's questionable whether the exercise will reflect a true picture of what each man can do — there isn't enough time to implement sweeping changes — O'Reilly said it was a way for him to see two strong candidates in action.

"They are not trying out. It's that I had two qualified candidates in-house that bring diverse and different management styles to the position.

"If I had two chief positions, I'd give them each one," said O'Reilly, who is in an interim position as well.

"I wanted to see who would be more comfortable in the job — and who I'd be more comfortable with," O'Reilly said.

He plans to make his decision in late September and name one of the men chief of police for the department that includes 31 officers and about 10 support staff.

Here's a look at the two men vying for the position.

Lt. Howard Coombs, 39, lives in Pasco County with his wife and two young children and has 11 years on the force under his belt.

What does he consider to be the biggest challenges for the department?

"The challenge is to maintain the same mission through all these changes: Protect public safety and fight crime," Coombs said.

He said the city's residents range from low-income to those living in opulent waterfront homes.

"You'll never have 100 percent agreement on what people want, but I would like to know what people want of us," he said.

•••

Why does he want to be chief?

"I would like to see a reduction in the number of burglaries and armed robberies," Coombs said.

"I like our mission statement that says we are here to protect the lives and property of Gulfport residents. To do that, we need the best equipment and training possible for the officers," he said.

He also said he would like to create a canine unit but that he would study the need and crunch the numbers first.

He and Vincent have differing opinions on how officers should be dressed. Coombs believes they should be able to wear summer uniforms like officers do in other beach communities. Vincent thinks the shorts and pullovers of the summer uniforms aren't professional enough.

Coombs said he sees the merits of each argument and, since Vincent enacted a no-summer-uniform policy, Coombs said he offered officers other options.

"I told them to come into the station if they feel overheated and to drink a lot of water."

Lt. Robert Vincent, 37, lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and has been on the force for 15 years.

What he sees as the biggest challenges for the Gulfport Police Department:

"One of the biggest problems the police department faces, and it's a victim of its own success, is that people feel safe here.

"It's hard to get people involved in crime watch groups, and they don't lock their things up."

On why he wants to be chief, Vincent offered, "It would give me the opportunity to have influence not only in Gulfport, but in all of law enforcement. Chiefs can be on panels that have the ability to be more far-reaching," he said.

• • •

His philosophy on how the police department should be run:

"Any police department should perform services in a way the people want it performed.

"Should we adopt the philosophy that everything illegal gets enforced — like chickens? If it's illegal, should we write tickets?"

He said it would take a formal survey to find the answers to the question.

"It's called 'community variation.' For instance, in some communities, it's okay for a guy to have his car on jacks, changing his oil in his front yard. In others, it's not okay."

What would he do as chief? Vincent said he would implement a career development program to get and keep better candidates. Officers would be asked where they want to be in five years and then they and their supervisors would work toward that goal.

New officers want two things, Vincent said. They want to be kept really busy and they want to work in a high-profile city, neither of which describes working in Gulfport. So, he said, he has to find other ways to make a police job here appealing — like job satisfaction.

"The goal is to create a reputation for ourselves that we do everything we can possibly do to get you where you want to be as an employee."

He said he also would like to make the department more proactive and less reactive by instituting "problem-oriented patrols."

"I want officers to not just document problems but find them," Vincent said.

Gulfport chief of police candidates each get a trial run 07/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 6:01pm]

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