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St. Petersburg mayor keeps an eye (and ear) on his city

Mayor Bill Foster, center, looks in on a St. Petersburg police raid at the Bottom to the Top bikini bar earlier this month.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Mayor Bill Foster, center, looks in on a St. Petersburg police raid at the Bottom to the Top bikini bar earlier this month.

ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Foster wanted to see it for himself.

Masked officers led him into the bikini bar moments after the late-night raid. Dancers inside were illegally exposing themselves, the officers told him. When police poured through the door, they found illicit drugs scattered on the floor, and a gun.

"That is a nasty place inside. Nothing good happens inside those walls," the mayor told the media after last weekend's raid. "Quite frankly, these places aren't welcome in St. Petersburg."

In the early months of a term that's been marked by a low-key, nonconfrontational approach at City Hall, Foster is exhibiting a tough-guy persona after dark.

He's got his own police radio. He's got his own call sign. He's shadowed the city's officers and firefighters. He's radioed for backup at least once. He's even, on occasion, walked his own beat.

Why is a mayor who says he spends most of his time on the budget — who's usually in bed before 11 p.m. — becoming a fixture on the city's meanest streets?

"People want visibility," Foster said. "It doesn't cost the taxpayer a penny when I show up. I'm going to be hands on. I am going to know what's going on in my city.

"I want to reassure the public that I'm there."

• • •

Police Chief Chuck Harmon sat down with the mayor shortly after his inauguration to talk about safety.

St. Petersburg has never assigned a police escort to the mayor like Tampa does. Foster didn't want one anyway. He didn't even want a police presence at his public appearances.

"He initially didn't see the need for it," Harmon said. "But he agreed to leave those decisions to me."

They made the standard agreement police chiefs make with all mayors: They'll be the first to know if an officer is seriously injured, or if there's a homicide.

But then Foster made an unusual request: He wanted a portable public safety radio, the kind police officers use to communicate.

"It's not uncommon for mayors around the country to have radios," Harmon said. But it's uncommon in St. Petersburg. The chief said he couldn't recall a mayor ever asking for one.

So Foster was issued a radio. He can listen to police channels and talk to officers and dispatchers. The only thing he can't do is pick up encrypted channels used by undercover officers.

An officer showed the mayor how to use it. He was briefed on the "10 codes" — 10-15, for example, means prisoner in custody.

"I think the impression that I got was that he wanted to be able to listen to what's going on in the city," Harmon said.

Everyone who has a radio has to have a call sign. Police dispatchers assigned the mayor this call-sign: X0.

The police chief's call sign, by the way, is X1.

"Maybe that's why they gave me 'X0,' " Foster said, laughing.

• • •

The radio has a white sticker on top that says "SPP Mayor."

On most days, Foster keeps the radio in his City Hall office. It's cradled in a battery charger on a side table by his desk.

He also takes it home with him. He listens to it as he drives home. Sometimes he turns it on at home to hear the radio traffic.

But Foster said he's only used it once in an emergency.

Every night, hundreds of radio transmissions are broadcast to and from the handheld radios of the city's police officers. There are so many that Jackie Yeager, the department's manager for emergency communications, said they aren't tracked or logged.

But even Yeager heard her dispatchers talk about the message sent one day by call sign "X0."

She said she doesn't remember what it was about or when it was sent. But she knows who came on the radio that day.

Foster said it was early May.

From a parking lot near City Hall, one of his assistants was headed to her car when she heard a man beating a woman in a nearby apartment. She called the mayor's office and spoke with Foster's administrative support manager, Ellen McDowell. She told the assistant to call 911.

Foster overheard McDowell's conversation. He went back into his office, grabbed his radio, and went to find his assistant. The man yelled at the mayor. Foster then got out his radio and called in the disturbance, directing the police to their location.

"I said, 'This is so-and-so,' and told them how to get there," he said. "That's the only time I ever used it."

The St. Petersburg Times requested any records or recordings of the mayor using his radio. But Foster couldn't recall the exact date of the incident, and the St. Petersburg Police Department said it couldn't locate any records of the mayor's radio usage.

• • •

The mayor's approach is a challenge for those responsible for his safety.

Police considered putting a Global Positioning System chip in the mayor's radio, but that's better suited for finding a lost radio than a mayor in distress.

"If the mayor's out, it would be a good idea if we knew where he was," said Mike McDonald, the department's assistant director for administrative services.

Added Harmon: "His style, wanting to be visible, wanting to be seen, it's challenging us from a public safety perspective."

Harmon said police are not tracking the mayor's movements when he's out on patrol. But he did talk to the mayor about how to stay safe. Rule No. 1: don't go to a crime scene until it's secure.

"When the officers respond to these critical emergencies," Harmon said, "I don't want them paying attention to me or the mayor."

Since he has no police bodyguard or driver, Foster said he relies on the radio for safety. It saves money, he said.

His predecessor, Rick Baker, never had a bodyguard. There was a police presence at his public appearances, however.

"(The radio) is more for personal security," Foster said. "It's there if I need it."

• • •

Foster doesn't just listen to what's going on in his city. He likes to see it for himself.

Earlier this year he rode along with detectives on a curfew check. They were targeting six juveniles who police say are among the city's most prolific offenders. One 13-year-old had 33 arrests.

"Quite an eye-opener," Foster said later.

He's been to condo fires, high-rise fire drills and, of course, the June 4 police raid on the Bottom to the Top bikini bar.

Two hours after the raid, the mayor walked around downtown alone. His police radio hanging on his belt, he chatted with officers outside Jannus Live at 1 a.m.

Foster frowned as drunks walked into traffic. He joked with officers. He posed for pictures with bar-hopping young adults.

"By Friday night I'm in bed by 10. I haven't seen this yet," Foster said, referring to the bustling late-night revelry, "but I probably should."

• • •

Appearing at emergencies is part of a mayoral style Foster said he picked up from former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco — a gregarious sort known for popping up at scenes all over his city — and the not-so-gregarious former mayor of New York who goes by the name Rudy.

Said Foster: "On the campaign trail, I said I'd be a cross between Greco and Giuliani."

Greco said he likes Foster's eagerness to get out of City Hall and head to fires and crime scenes.

"It gives you a better idea of who lives in your city," Greco said. "I saw things that I never thought I'd see when I did it."

Greco said he even listened to the radio like Foster does. He kept it by his bed and encouraged his staff to call him at all hours.

"I run into cops today who say they remember me backing them up at 2 a.m.," Greco said. "I kind of miss the police radio. You learn a lot about your city listening to it. You really do."

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg mayor keeps an eye (and ear) on his city 06/12/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 12, 2010 11:52pm]

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