Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

In St. Petersburg, Melanie Bevan didn't skip a beat in rising to assistant police chief

ST. PETERSBURG — The businessman shuffled up to Melanie Bevan and thrust out his hand.

He wasn't intimidated by the police officer's uniform, perfectly pressed, or the four gold stars on her collar.

"Hey chief, glad to have you here," the man said enthusiastically before finding his seat at a recent downtown luncheon for community leaders. "And congratulations!"

It's a common scene for Bevan, the city's newly appointed assistant police chief. Her popularity got its start years ago.

In a department known for stark divisions between top leadership and rank-and-file officers, the 46-year-old mother of two has climbed the mountain of management without alienating those beneath — or around — her.

And Bevan has navigated that process — even bucking it once — with unusual finesse.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon is her mentor. Union officials like her. The mayor has praised her. There's speculation Bevan could be the department's first female police chief.

It's a remarkable rise for a woman who also was behind one of the department's worst moments in recent history.

"If you have a reputation in the Police Department … good luck losing it," said Wes Kenly, a retired police lieutenant . "She, to her credit, has done it almost perfectly. … If you let Melanie prove herself to you, she'll sway you in 10 minutes."

• • •

Bevan was too young to drink, too young to buy bullets and could barely shoot straight when she joined the department in 1986. She was 19.

A Largo girl with big hair who always put her hand up to work the "hot" areas.

She rode around downtown on a bike, buying crack. She still has a scar on her stomach from a drug deal. Rain started to fall during the buy, causing the undercover wires taped against her skin to short out and begin to sizzle. She never flinched. Her supervisors were impressed, but Bevan still had a long way to go to prove herself.

"When she first came on, the political climate wasn't what it is now," said Kenly, one of Bevan's first supervisors. "Even though we've made great strides … women could still be treated very poorly. You came into an atmosphere that was very conservative and very male-dominated in its beliefs. They looked for a reason not to like you."

Women made up less than 12 percent of the staff in 1990, according to police statistics. They account for 16.5 percent of the force today.

Bevan recalls one night when a fellow officer approached from behind as she bent over a water fountain. "He gave me what we might call today an 'inappropriate' touch," she said. Bevan whipped around and slapped him. He never tried again.

Kenly said he saw leadership qualities in Bevan almost immediately. It would take much longer for Bevan to recognize them in herself.

• • •

In the mid 1990s, someone prodded Bevan to take the exam the department uses to determine officers eligible for promotion. That first time, she was ranked 16th out of about 100.

In 1994, she was promoted to sergeant. Five years later, she became a lieutenant.

Goliath Davis, police chief at the time, suggested Bevan apply to Leadership St. Petersburg. Bevan declined at first, but then decided to join the civic group that seeks to educate attendees about city history with an aim toward creating new leaders.

It proved to be an ambitious class that included Harmon, Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams, fire Chief Jim Large and Pinellas Commissioner Karen Seel.

Bevan came to Davis' attention through Assistant Police Chief Cedric Gordon and Sgt. Al White.

She was tasked with helping them tackle "Chunky Sunday," large informal and spontaneous weekend gatherings of mostly black teenagers from 1997 to 2000 at Bartlett and Campbell parks.

The events drew complaints from residents and community leaders concerned about crowds, loud music and traffic.

"The adult masses would have been satisfied with arrests, but in the process you would alienate these kids," Davis said. "Melanie learned the sensitivity of working with a diverse community, of managing controversy in an appropriate way. … We ended up nicknaming her 'Chunky Mel.' "

Ironic, since Bevan, who stands taller than many of her male colleagues, has always been slim. She wears the same size pants she did when she got out of the academy 26 years ago. She's something of a gym nut.

About two years later, Davis brought Bevan into his office for another proposal: a promotion to major.

Bevan turned him down.

"I can't recall anyone ever turning down a promotion here in recent history," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt, who has been with the department for more than 30 years.

Bevan said she declined for two reasons. She and her then-partner, Jane Castor (who now is Tampa police chief) were adopting two boys, now age 13. Bevan also didn't feel like she was ready.

"I'd only been a lieutenant two years," she said. "I'm a firm believer that there's a lot of value in every rank. Most officers … they just want to go up the ladder. It's never been about the title to me."

• • •

In the early 2000s, Bevan started the agency's street crimes unit, a squad of officers that focuses on combating drug activity. She worked alongside her officers.

One night, as she chased down a drug dealer, a dog sank its teeth into her leg. She shot and killed the animal.

Harmon called her that night.

"I told her I appreciated her enthusiasm, but that I really didn't expect her to be doing those types of things anymore," said Harmon. Bevan still reminds him she hasn't had any "fun" since, he added.

In 2005, Harmon told Bevan he wanted to make her a major. She accepted.

Two years later, she made a decision that led to what some have called one of the worst moments in the city's history.

Politicians and police have grappled with the city's homeless population for decades.

One Friday afternoon in January 2007, a handful of high-ranking St. Petersburg officials gathered to figure out a solution to makeshift tent cities.

Authorities said they were concerned about fire hazards at the camps. Police agreed to take them down, but they didn't want to arrest anyone or create a confrontation.

During the meeting, Bevan suggested just cutting the tents of those who resisted — and that's just what officers did a few days later.

It took less than 10 minutes for police to slash eight tents and seize 20.

The backlash was almost immediate.

Videos of the tent slashings went viral and attracted nationwide attention. A public outcry erupted over St. Petersburg's treatment of the homeless.

"It was one of the lowest points in the history of the city," said the Rev. Bruce Wright, an advocate for the homeless. "This showed, again, a city that's insensitive to the needs of poor people and people of color."

The outrage helped spur the creation of Pinellas Hope, a regulated tent city for the county's homeless, and sparked a larger dialogue about the issue.

The night of the slashings, Bevan called Kenly, who had become a mentor.

"I told her she was wrong," he said. "But she already knew she was wrong."

Today, Bevan says this: "My heart was in the right place. It wasn't conceived with ill-will. It wasn't well thought out. It taught me humility."

Wright says he appreciates Bevan taking responsibility, but he's still wary.

"Private remorse is a good thing, but I think it's still not enough," he said. "As she's rising in the ranks, the past misdeeds must be accounted for. I'm not really exactly thrilled with her promotion."

• • •

Police unions typically clash with top brass.

Not so with Bevan.

Suncoast Police Benevolent Association president Mark Marland called her recent promotion a morale boost.

Officers appreciate that Bevan spent much of her career in patrol, that she was on the SWAT team, that she never skipped a rank.

She's frequently in uniform. She spends part of her lunch hour at the department's gym, where she says she gets to "shed her rank."

"She'll walk the halls. She'll talk to people," Marland said. "She will do the things that people want to see."

When the department got new tactical gear and armored vehicles after the shooting deaths of three police officers last year, Bevan was the point person.

She coordinated the officers' funerals and was tapped to manage St. Petersburg's portion of the Republican National Convention.

Harmon, who said he will retire in a couple of years, predicts big things for Bevan.

She will be, he said, "a leader in the organization long after I leave."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected]

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