Thursday, November 23, 2017
Public safety

New St. Petersburg police chief faces challenges to unify police, community

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ST. PETERSBURG — In introducing the city's new police chief, Mayor Rick Kriseman spoke of his hire as the start of the agency's transformation, the "day that we begin to come together."

Tony Holloway stood gripping both sides of the lectern and smiled big. Before him was a room packed with elected officials, community leaders, police officers and a line of TV cameras.

"There's a lot of good men and women at the St. Petersburg Police Department, and we're going to show you a force that's going to stand together," Holloway said. "But we're also going to show you that we're going to build some bridges back into our community. Because that's what we need."

Holloway, 52, has been the Clearwater police chief for more than four years. He will now oversee a budget and workforce that is more than double in size. But his challenges will be more than numbers. He will be taking over an agency that is highly scrutinized by the community, nuanced in its internal policies and, according to many, in need of a unifying force.

Chief Chuck Harmon retired in January after 12 years, but officers have been clamoring for leadership for much longer than that, police union president Mark Marland said.

"I hope he's ready to go to work," Marland said. "We have a ton of issues, the biggest one being overall morale. He's going to have to turn that around, and that's not going to be an easy task."

The prolonged search for a chief, as well as controversy this spring over promotions and race relations within the agency, hasn't helped.

Harmon, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, said his successor will have to tackle the divides in the department.

"Everybody doesn't get along. Different people have agendas," Harmon said. "It's going to be very important who he gets his advice from, who he listens to."

It'll also be important for him to win over those who wanted Assistant Chief Melanie Bevan as their chief, Harmon said.

Council of Neighborhood Associations president Lisa Wheeler-Brown, who supported Bevan, said she respects Holloway and especially likes his "park, walk and talk" philosophy about community policing.

"St. Petersburg needs a progressive police chief to move things forward," she said. "If he brings the same model here, our community will not be disappointed."

Rank-and-file officers hope he's accessible. They'd like to see him at shift meetings and crime scenes big and small, Marland said. Some felt they didn't get that with Harmon.

"Little things keep cops happy," said Jim Sewell, who consulted with Kriseman during the chief search. "But they need some direction to move ahead and not keep the status quo."

Communication with his officers, his command staff, his bosses at City Hall and the community will be key, Sewell said.

Holloway excels at that, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who has known him since the 1980s. He said Holloway is not afraid to be direct.

"People want to be policed with, not policed to," Gualtieri said. "And I think he subscribes to that."

On Tuesday, Holloway said his biggest weakness may be that he sometimes gets too involved with the community and doesn't step back to see the big picture.

Holloway already has some changes in mind. He plans to bring the CompStat model, which involves combining crime statistics with weekly accountability meetings, to the department. He also plans to tackle the juvenile arrest rate.

"I'm not talking about hugging a thug," he said. "If a child gets caught shoplifting or something like that we're going to see if we can turn that child around and get him or her back on that right track, because that's what we're supposed to do."

Holloway said he did not know if he would reorganize the command structure. In Clearwater, he has one deputy. In St. Petersburg, there are three assistant chiefs.

He doesn't think he will be tainted by the process that put him here.

"Any time that you come into a new place as a new person, everybody is going to look at you totally different," he said. "Cops are just like everybody else: People hate change, and people hate the way things are. … So how do you balance both of them? Just by getting to know everyone."

Holloway, who lives with his wife in Belleair, will not be moving to St. Petersburg. Kriseman, unlike former Mayor Rick Baker, did not make that a requirement.

He will take over next month.

Assistant Chief Luke Williams, who attended a controversial community meeting in March about racial divisions in the department, said he was excited about Holloway's start.

City Council member Wengay Newton predicted that Holloway may be able to mend fractures between the police and some black residents.

"They see someone who looks like them, they may respect him more," he said. "I think he'll be good for all the city."

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Kameel Stanley at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.

 
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