ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster pledged to bring back neighborhood officers during his campaign, and the St. Petersburg Police Department is ready to deliver on that promise — sort of.
The city will soon beef up the number of officers dedicated to "sweating the small stuff" in neighborhoods — dealing with non-emergencies like barking dogs, broken streetlights and abandoned vehicles. But that's not all they're going to do.
"I want them going out, walking a beat, talking to people, meeting business owners, going to neighborhood association meetings," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "Basically, they're going to be a quarterback for that geographical area."
The new program is reminiscent of — but not a return to — the popular community policing program that was scrapped in 2006. At the time, each of the city's 43 neighborhoods had its own personal community police officer, or CPO.
Residents enjoyed knowing the officers who worked their streets. But Harmon did away with that program because it was a drag on morale. Some CPOs didn't have to work as hard as their brethren in patrol and other divisions, Harmon said.
Instead, Harmon made community policing the duty of every officer. He tasked small groups of officers with some of the CPOs' old duties, like responding to non-emergency calls and attending neighborhood meetings.
One group — consisting of a sergeant and four officers— was assigned to each of the city's three patrol districts.
So what's the big change?
First, the addition of "quarterbacks" — nine new officers who will be added to the community policing force.
The city's three patrol districts are each divided into three sectors. Each sector will now have its own officer, who will do for his area what the old CPOs used to do — and more.
"They're not going to focus on just quality-of-life issues," Harmon said, "they're going to be preventive in nature, too. They're going to meet with people to solve problems before things happen."
Like the CPOs of yore, they'll be responsible for meeting with city agencies like code enforcement and sanitation to clean up streets and attending neighborhood association meetings.
To find those positions the chief disbanded the CAPE unit — or Community Police and Engagement unit — a program that flooded officers into one troubled neighborhood at a time.
"Instead of being more reactive once a crime happens," the chief said, "we're going to focus more on prevention."
The other, minor change will see the city's three crime prevention officers assigned directly to the commanders of the three districts they serve.
Those officers help set up and train neighborhood watches and help residents and businesses secure themselves and their property from criminals. But before they didn't report to the majors in charge of those patrol districts.
"Now all these officers will be under a major," Harmon said. "There will be closer communication, closer supervision with more of a pro-active role in crime prevention."
The new system should go into effect within 30 to 60 days, though the department cautions nothing is set in stone.
Allendale crime watch coordinator Nina Light is a fan of the old system, when neighborhoods knew their officers by name.
"What counts to me is that it's going to work," Light said. "I think Mayor Foster is very proactive against stopping crime and not reacting to it. I think the police are hopefully going to become more proactive."
She said community policing and the mayor's other public safety initiatives will be discussed at the crime watch's annual meeting March 9.
Her hope: "I'm looking forward to nice, quiet nights on patrol."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.