Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Public safety

St. Petersburg police chief search draws plenty of interest

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ST. PETERSBURG — Three weeks ago, the city put out a call for a new police chief.

The response has been swift.

So far, city records show, 40 people have applied for the post, which has been advertised in national and international trade magazines and websites that cater to law enforcement. The deadline to apply is Nov. 15.

"So far I consider it normal," said Gary Cornwell, the city's director of human resources. "Usually there's a flurry at the beginning and a flurry at the end."

Applicants so far include several police chiefs and officers from smaller agencies in states such as Arkansas and Illinois and bigger departments in Chicago and Baltimore. Several applicants have military experience or work for federal agencies like the FBI, Department of Defense and Homeland Security. A few are lawyers or work in security for large companies. One man said he is a concert promoter. Thirty-two are men, three are women.

But, as of yet, no one from within the department — including assistant chiefs Luke Williams and Melanie Bevan — have turned in resumes.

"There's no need to rush," said Jim Sewell, a widely respected retired figure in the local law enforcement scene who is involved in the search. "This is not atypical."

In some ways, it does not make sense for them to put in right now, said Sewell, who once ran the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and was a police chief in Gulfport in the late 1980s.

Local candidates can sit back and survey the field before jumping in, he said. They also may be waiting for the outcome of Tuesday's mayoral election, which will determine who their boss will be.

Although both Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman are in favor of a national search, they differ on the direction they want the Police Department to take.

Foster, who has been supported by the police union in this year's race, has said he would likely keep things the same at the agency. But Kriseman has called for tweaks in the way the department approaches community policing and wants the pursuit policy tightened.

Sewell, who has consulted on police chief searches in Sarasota and Lakeland, said St. Petersburg is in a good position. It has had the luxury of a steady police chief for several years. Sewell said he also doesn't believe residents want a complete overhaul of the department.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon, the longest-serving chief in recent memory, has held the post for 12 years. He will retire Jan. 6.

Almost immediately after Harmon announced his retirement last month, Bevan and Williams were singled out as possible replacements. Both have expressed interest in the job, and are widely considered to be frontrunners who will make whatever short list emerges.

St. Petersburg has not had great success with outside police chiefs in the past, but Sewell said it doesn't mean one of the inside candidates is a lock.

"Even though we have two great candidates, we want to make sure we have the best candidate," he said. "The most visible representatives of city government are the mayor and the police chief."

The police union has said little on the issue so far and appears neutral on whether the new chief comes from inside or outside the department.

"We're looking for a leader who will lead us for the next five to 10 years," said Detective Mark Marland, head of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association. "We're looking for someone who is very supportive of the officers."

After the application deadline passes, a screening committee — made up of the mayor, Cornwell, Harmon, Sewell and city administrator Tish Elston — will come up with a short list.

Interviews will be conducted by the screening committee as well as a newly created public safety advisory board. The new chief likely won't be installed until early next year.

"I think everybody is intent on making sure we get a good, creative, innovative police chief," Sewell said. "Someone who can make what is generally a safe city even safer."

Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report. Contact Kameel Stanley at (727) 893-8643 or [email protected]

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