Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

St. Petersburg might want to consider history when choosing its next police chief

I cannot vouch for Luke Williams. Never met the man.

And I have no history with Melanie Bevan, other than a few pleasantries exchanged at some forgettable public function.

So I do not know whether either of these assistant police chiefs is a can't-miss candidate to replace Chuck Harmon as St. Petersburg's top cop.

But here's what I do know:

St. Petersburg has had more success with internal promotions than with national candidates when it comes to hiring a new police chief.

Granted, we're dealing with a rather small sample size. And there is room for argument when it comes to the actual performance of past chiefs.

So maybe it's just a coincidence that chiefs with some of the rockiest tenures in recent history (Curt Curtsinger, Darrel Stephens and previous St. Pete chief Mack Vines) were outside hires instead of internal candidates. And maybe it's just luck that those with the longest and least controversial tenures (Sam Lynn in the 1980s, and Harmon the past 12 years) were promoted from within.

Or maybe it actually helps to already be on the inside.

"St. Petersburg is a big town with a small-town feel,'' Harmon said. "You really have to understand the dynamics of the community, and it helps to have a good feel for some of the city's history. It's not an easy job to just walk in from off the streets.''

By no means is this a suggestion that St. Petersburg simply hand the job to Bevan or Williams while ignoring national candidates. The position is far too important to limit yourself to the people sitting down the hall from the current chief.

Still, it helps to understand that being a police chief is not a cookie-cutter type of job. Philosophies and theories are important, but so is a familiarity with the unique circumstances of the streets and the politics of a particular city.

Here's one way to look at it:

Between the summer of 1990 and the fall of 2001, the city hired four different police chiefs, including three from outside the department.

On the other hand, Harmon was an emergency replacement from within the ranks late in '01 and has held the job longer than any other chief in the last half-century.

"I knew where I stood, and I knew who I could go to for help and advice,'' Harmon said. "My first year on the job, I was never home. I spent a lot of time on the road, going to neighborhood meetings and talking to as many people as I could. There's been some ebb and flow over the years, but I think we've made a lot of progress.

"If the city wants that stability and wants to continue in the same direction, then maybe you hire from inside. If you want a change agent, you're going to want to look outside.''

No matter which direction the city goes in, the decision should wait until after the November election. If Mayor Bill Foster were to hire an internal candidate without looking nationally, he would be needlessly shortchanging the process. And trying to do a national search with the possibility of a new mayor in two months makes zero sense. After all, no candidates worth hiring would subject themselves to that uncertainty.

The city has whiffed on enough police chiefs in the past to understand the necessity of doing this right.

Personally, I would be leaning toward Bevan or Williams and waiting to see whether there is a national candidate too good to ignore.

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