Thursday, December 14, 2017
Opinion

Maxwell: Questions for the police chief

Chuck Harmon, 53, will retire in January as St. Petersburg's longest-serving police chief in recent history. There are good reasons for this longevity. In addition to being street-savvy and professional, he is honest, soft-spoken and measured in his actions. And he clearly loves the city he swore to serve and protect.

When I learned he was retiring, I asked him to talk with me about his legacy and issues related to the department and its future.

Are there compelling issues you plan to discuss with your successor and the next mayor before you retire?

One of the reasons I announced my retirement months in advance is so that I could ensure a smooth transition with the mayor and my successor. I want everyone to understand that I am a resident of this city and care about it very much. I have even offered to help be part of the selection process of the new chief if the mayor feels that would be beneficial. As part of the transition, I would ensure that the new chief has some of the historical views of things such as our current pursuit policy, union relations, deployment methodology and the budget. It will then be the new chief's responsibility to implement their policies and be held accountable for them.

Many African-American residents say the city and the police department have lowered their commitment to protecting and serving Midtown and Childs Park. They worry that this diminished commitment will have a continuing negative impact on crime and security in these neighborhoods. How do you respond their concerns?

I would disagree that we have lowered our commitment or efforts in Midtown, Childs Park or any other area of the city for that matter. It all may be a matter of perspective. The most difficult thing to do in our most socioeconomically challenged areas of our city is to find the right balance of police resources. If you deploy too many, criticism will come in the form of the perception of criminalizing youth, which impacts their potential for school and jobs. It also tends to lead to poor police/citizen relationships in those neighborhoods, because they feel they are being targeted for even minor infractions of the law. If you deploy too few, there will be a feeling of the area being unsafe, and investment into the neighborhoods will not occur. I think we have done a good job over the years in balancing those interests. We also do a lot of things, like mentoring and tutoring, that the public never sees to try and keep our kids out of trouble. I am a big believer in diversion programs for first-time minor offenders, and I hope my successor is also.

What is the status of the department's internal relations along racial and gender lines?

I think our relationships internally and with our citizens are the best they have been in my career. During the last 12 years as chief, I have strived to ensure we look like the community we serve. A diverse organization is a strong one, and it is critical to look at issues through many eyes. The staff I have right now is the most diverse staff we have ever had, and I am proud of that fact. It will be critical that my successor is committed to diversity, as well.

Do you prefer a national search for your successor?

I would certainly support a national search for my replacement. I think it is very important to find the best person for the job. That being said, I have two assistant chiefs I strongly support and feel are very capable. This police department has not always had a good track record with outside chiefs. Our city has many unique needs, and I would best describe it as a large city with a small-city feel. It is not just about running the police department. It is very important that you understand the community you serve.

What are your crowning achievements and your biggest regrets as chief?

I think I will let others define any achievements. I would like to describe anything we have ever accomplished as a team effort. I became part of an organization 31 years ago that was professional and accomplished, and I feel the same today. I appreciate those who came before me for leading in the right way. As far as regrets, I really don't have too many. We did make some mistakes along the way, and I take full responsibility for those that happened on my watch.

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