Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway, after 100 days in office, gets high praise

ST. PETERSBURG

On his 100th day as the chief of police in Florida's fifth-largest city, Tony Holloway walks along Central Avenue and smiles.

This, he says, is the centerpiece of his tenure so far: the park, walk and talk. He introduced it in September as a way of bolstering community policing.

Holloway says hello to passers-by, compliments a bank security officer, pops into an art gallery where he says he always stops. The people ask, "How are you, Chief?" and he replies, "Quite well," in what might be an understatement.

Along the way, Holloway answers a reporter's questions about race, technology and crime in much the same way he always answers these questions, rarely straying from the tenets of his well-formed theory on police work. It is easy to call these statements — shared similarly across St. Petersburg during news conferences, community meetings and sidewalk chats — talking points. But Holloway's many supporters say this is simply who the chief is: an equanimous leader who says the same thing everywhere he goes.

"I love the idea of consistency," said Terri Lipsey Scott, chairwoman of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, where Holloway has talked with community members twice in the past three months. "For too long we've been inundated with different conversations for different communities."

With Holloway, she said, "It doesn't matter if he's in Shore Acres or if he's in Jordan Park."

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who cast aside a winnowed-down list of candidates to hire Holloway away from the Clearwater Police Department in July, said the chief is ushering in a new era for the police department. "I'm thrilled with the job he's doing," he said.

The police union head, who criticized the way Kriseman hired Holloway as a "mockery" of the process, said morale is way up. Officers appreciate that Holloway wears a uniform, not a suit, and conducts traffic stops or responds as backup on calls.

"We haven't found anything we don't like," Detective Mark Marland said. "The troops love this guy."

Holloway "has been accessible to neighborhoods" and "everyone that's called him up," City Council Chairman Bill Dudley said.

Lisa Wheeler-Brown, head of the city's Council on Neighborhood Associations, said she has heard nothing but positive feedback. "It's been like a breath of fresh air," she said.

In September, Holloway unfurled his biggest initiative so far in Bartlett Park: the so-called park, walk and talk, which he says helps make residents less wary of police. Every uniformed officer, including the chief, must walk around a patrol area for at least an hour each week. Officers are responsible for personally logging their park, walk and talk times, and Holloway said an audit last week revealed everyone has done it so far.

It's "for all of us to start re-engaging ourselves back in the community," the chief said.

Improving trust and communication can help prevent problems like those that have roiled Ferguson, Mo., this year, Holloway said. He was sworn into office four days after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, touching off protests across the country and spurring questions about racism and policing.

Body cameras are a hot-button issue for law enforcement agencies in part because of the Brown shooting, which many maintain would be better understood if it had been recorded. Holloway is not sold on the cameras, but he said St. Petersburg has begun looking at vendors and might start testing them on the street in May or June.

"Body cameras are not going to instill trust in a community. It's just technology," Holloway said. "We as law enforcement are going to have to put that trust into the community."

Beyond the park, walk and talk, technology has been the second critical element of Holloway's first 100 days. The department has a new website, a smartphone app and a data-driven crime analysis unit called LEADS, which also monitors Tip411 — a new anonymous service for residents to contact police. In its first month, Tip411 generated 42 tips, four of which led to arrests, according to police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez.

Yet technology and the park, walk and talk sometimes compete against each other in Holloway's speeches. He says too much texting and computer work have allowed officers to stay in their cars and precinct stations, avoiding real interaction with the community.

"It's good for intelligence-led policing," Holloway said. "It tells me where I have to put my resources, where crime's happening, all that stuff. But I just don't want us to live off of that."

There have been other changes, too, that either aren't as visible or haven't been seen yet. By next spring, Holloway says, all officers will be outfitted in blue uniforms instead of their traditional drab green.

He slightly reconfigured the department's organizational chart, moving school resource officers into the uniformed division, a semantic change meant to convey that when school is out, he still wants resource officers out where kids gather on the streets.

He hired James Previtera from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, an old colleague who will take over for retiring Assistant Chief David DeKay as head of the Investigative Services Bureau.

"I think he's going to add a different set of eyes into the community and into the department because in St. Petersburg we've got a lot of guys that have been here 20, 30 years," Holloway said.

The chief continues to attack the same four crime categories: burglaries, prostitution, robberies, and drugs, all of which he says are related and lead to other problems.

When asked about his private life, he offers that he likes college football, the same answer he gave the Times when he took office. Holloway, who lives in Belleair, is so wary of isolating a crowd or stirring controversy that, though he admits he will sometimes watch games from 1 p.m. to midnight on a Saturday, he won't even declare a favorite team.

Finally, though, as he pulls back into the station a question gives him pause. What do you want people to say when they walk away after meeting you for the first time?

He takes 26 seconds to answer, an eternity in Holloway time.

"I don't care if they don't like me or not because then you'll drive yourself crazy," Holloway said. "That he was honest with me. That he told me the truth whether I liked it or not. At least he took the time to listen to me and he heard what I had to say."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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