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Retiring St. Petersburg police chief says transition won't be easy

“It think it was important for me to never get too high or too low,” says police Chief Chuck Harmon. “This is a political job, without asking for votes or money. I understood the need to build consensus.”

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

“It think it was important for me to never get too high or too low,” says police Chief Chuck Harmon. “This is a political job, without asking for votes or money. I understood the need to build consensus.”

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon has never had a need for a passport. He has only gotten as far as Canada. He always keeps his cell phone on, in case the office calls.

Early next year, that will change. The city's top cop — the longest-serving police chief in modern city history — will officially retire and turn in his badge Jan. 6. His last day in the office is Dec. 18. He's ready for a new routine.

What will that look like? A trip to Europe next summer. More time with his wife and three children. More golfing, more fishing. And hopefully, Harmon said in a recent interview, more time in the gym.

"You never really felt like you could leave," said Harmon, who turns 54 on Monday. "This will be my first opportunity to really let go."

Harmon's departure after 12 years as chief is likely to be as big a change for the city as it is for him. The agency's next leader will not only have to manage an organization with 750 employees and a $90 million budget, but also tackle several issues — community policing, the chase policy and take-home cruisers — that became frequent topics in this year's mayoral race.

Harmon, however, said he sees an even larger problem looming for his successor. In the next three to four years, turnover in the ranks is likely to accelerate, he said.

That's because the department has a force made up of many old-timers and many newcomers — but not so many people in between. The potential for people in both groups to leave is great. Older employees will reach retirement age, and younger ones may start looking to jump to bigger agencies, especially as the economy improves.

This problem, which was hardly, if ever, mentioned in the last months on the campaign trail, has the potential to affect the department much more profoundly than a policy change, Harmon said.

"Changing the chase policy — that's a piece of paper and a pen stroke," Harmon said. "But there are other things that are going to be much more impactful . . . In the next three, four years there's going to be a lot of transition."

Some people think that's a good thing.

City Council Chairman Karl Nurse said Harmon's tenure has been marked by stability. But he said the city also has a chance to move the department in a more modern direction.

"(Harmon) was not a person who stirred up controversy. He was a fairly calming kind of guy, and there's value to that," Nurse said. "But I think fresh energy, a fresh look, is helpful."

Nurse was the president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) when Harmon made what perhaps was the most controversial decision during his tenure as chief.

In 2005, Harmon disassembled the department's traditional community policing model, which assigned about 40 officers to specific neighborhoods. In its place, Harmon created a hybrid system that features a smaller group of officers who share community policing duties. Harmon also said he expects all officers to be community oriented.

Though Harmon said he gets fewer complaints from ordinary residents about the current method, the issue continues to be debated publicly. It was something Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman vowed to address.

"I thought blowing up community policing was a serious step back for neighborhoods," Nurse said. "If we had a problem, I thought it was a supervisory problem, not a conception problem."

Harmon said a dozen years at the helm of the department has taught him "you can't satisfy everyone." He strived to remain even-keeled.

"It think it was important for me to never get too high or too low," he said. "This is a political job, without asking for votes or money. I understood the need to build consensus."

Harmon was never able to achieve that when it came to the department's chase policy, which was loosened four years ago after Mayor Bill Foster took office. In the interview, Harmon said he would not have a problem if the policy reverted back.

"As I've said all along, I don't think it needed to be changed before," the chief said.

Besides the chase policy and community policing, Harmon said the new chief may have to deal with a rising crime rate, which after plummeting for years shot up 6.2 percent in the first half of the year, according to a recently released report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

He or she also will have to get used to criticism from outside and inside the agency, Harmon said. Harmon took lots of that this year.

Community leaders have said they are concerned with the way some officers treat residents, especially in the Midtown area. Within law enforcement circles, Harmon has faced complaints about discipline matters.

Police union lawyer Ken Afienko said Harmon sent the "wrong message" to the rank-and-file when he ruled an officer was not justified in the fatal shooting of a suicidal man who raised a gun at officers this fall. Harmon said the officer didn't have sight of his target, so he shouldn't have fired his weapon. The officer is appealing the decision.

"These shootings are dynamic," Afienko said. "These officers don't want to be killed."

Harmon said the new chief can't be nervous to take a stand on issues, or to make changes.

"I think we're in the best place that I remember this agency being in the last 30 years," he said. "Any time there's a lot of change there will be angst and apprehension. … It's been an interesting career. I think the city will be in good hands."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8643 or @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.

Retiring St. Petersburg police chief says transition won't be easy 11/30/13 [Last modified: Sunday, December 1, 2013 11:43am]
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