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Police chief, new mayor set to discuss crime plans in February

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he and Mayor-elect Bill Foster have set a date to start hashing out their differences over how to best police the city.

And they're going to invite 100 or so members of the public and the St. Petersburg Police Department to help them figure it out.

Harmon said they'll convene a community retreat in February to discuss the new mayor's crime platform — not all of which jibes with the chief's own crime-fighting beliefs.

Community retreats are the chief's modus operandi. Whenever Harmon wants to change policy, he invites select residents and leaders to discuss the changes with his officers.

He held one in 2005 when he wanted to arm his officers with Tasers, and another in 2006 to change community policing.

"The mayor talked during the campaign about transparency and inclusiveness, giving everyone a seat at the table," Harmon said. "In this case, they literally will be sitting at a table, talking about these issues."

The mayor and chief have a lot to talk about. Despite their professed desire to work together during the campaign, both men stood on opposite sides of key policing issues.

Foster supported a return to the community policing model where officers are assigned to certain neighborhoods. Harmon took away those neighborhood officers three years ago, saying he had to streamline the old model to boost efficiency and morale.

The mayor-elect also said he wanted to loosen the pursuit policy, giving officers more freedom to decide which criminals to chase. Harmon said the current policy, which allows officers to only chase violent offenders, is safer for police and the public.

But Foster said the two may be closer on those issues now than they were before the election.

The mayor-elect said "80 percent" of the public safety portion of his campaign platform will be implemented. But he didn't say which 80 percent. During the campaign he stressed focusing on smaller crimes to prevent bigger ones; using city employees as a crime watch; and installing security cameras in "hot spots."

But he also said the chief is tutoring him in crime fighting.

"I'm learning how much I didn't know about policing," Foster said. "As I've told the chief, I have 100 percent confidence in him, and he will run the department."

As for community policing, the mayor-elect said he and the chief may be on the verge of a compromise, though he wouldn't reveal any details.

"We're spending a lot of time discussing what community policing is going to look like," Foster said, "and I'm excited because we've found a meeting of the minds as to what it should look like."

The chief signaled that he's also willing to change his mind, perhaps at that February retreat. But he offered no specifics, either.

"I think I've always shown that if somebody can show me a better way, without jeopardizing safety, then I'm willing to look and listen and learn and change."

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

Police chief, new mayor set to discuss crime plans in February 12/10/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2009 12:37am]
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