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Bill Maxwell

The chief talks about crime

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon is the city's longest-serving police chief in two decades. I spoke to Harmon about recent criticism about his low-key style and other issues.

Explain your law enforcement philosophy and style.

My style is more of a learned process. I have tried to learn the good things from those I admire, from a leadership perspective, while avoiding the pitfalls of others. I know it is not about me, and I always thought it was important for the chief to model the behavior he wants his officers and employees to have. I do not want our officers acting on emotion or personal feelings. I want them to bring a calming attitude with a sense of professionalism to de-escalate tense moments. A chief does not have to make split-second decisions like officers on the street. Therefore, I have always attempted to make decisions with input from a diverse group who likely share differing viewpoints.

What is the biggest difficulty in being chief in St. Petersburg?

Getting people to understand the causes of crime has been a real challenge. Some have a perception that the Police Department is not successful because crimes occur, but they do not understand the complexities involved. Crime can be linked to many things, including the economy, dropout rates, economic development, unemployment and recidivism rates of offenders, just to name a few. The Police Department made over 14,000 arrests in 2008, the highest total ever. We, as a society, are not going to incarcerate our way out of all our societal problems.

What is the source of the perception that crime is bad?

If you have been victimized, it does not matter what the crime rate is. St. Petersburg is a safe city. The number of crimes in 2008 was at its lowest level since the 1980s. Go to www.stpete.org and look at the Mayor's Performance Measures under crime for other Florida cities. The media play a large role in determining the perception of crime in any community.

How do you describe your management style?

My management style is collaborative and inclusive. I am results-oriented. I want to get people to buy into change and improvement. I want to grow people in the department who can become future chiefs. I like to challenge my people to improvise and innovate. I hold them accountable for what they do. I expect them to be professionals, both on and off duty. I encourage our employees to be actively engaged with the community. I am committed to the citizens of this city as their police chief.

The St. Petersburg Times editorial board and individuals have said you are not being visible and outspoken enough. What do you say to that?

I have been visible and outspoken when it comes to issues of policy, procedures or employee disciplinary issues. I have let my people be out front on the significant criminal investigations, arrests, or for the good work they have done. I will accept the constructive criticism to be more visible and outspoken on the issues of crime while still looking for opportunities for my people to grow.

When Mayor Rick Baker's term is up after the November election, would you stay on as chief if the new mayor wants you to?

I still very much enjoy serving and continue to have enthusiasm for the job. If the newly elected mayor and I can share a common vision and philosophy about policing, I would like to continue serving the citizens.

Does Midtown, along with adjacent neighborhoods, present special problems for the police?

Every neighborhood is unique. Many of the neighborhoods in and around Midtown have been neglected for years in terms of economic development, infrastructure, educational needs, employment opportunities and other essential needs. There is a link between crime and those factors. Therefore, more resources may be needed in the areas of our city that have those issues. Some may view this as not equitable, but it is fair. In those neighborhoods, we must have a balanced approach to professional policing while also improving the underlying conditions. Some of our strategies include mentoring kids, working with service providers, involving our officers in youth activities to keep kids off the street, providing funding for youth and crime-prevention activities through our forfeiture fund, supporting the Police Athletic League, making referrals for services and many more. The success of every neighborhood affects the success of our entire city.

What kind of technological changes and investments have you made in the department to reduce crime?

We have made significant improvements in our technology. Each officer is now assigned a computer and receives real-time data in their cruiser. We recently integrated our new dispatch and records systems which made us much more efficient. We have automated the shift briefings so that officers have additional and more timely information in the field. Most patrol officers now check directly into service from their homes, which gives them more time on the street. We are now procuring enhanced crime analysis software for our crime analysts, which will allow them to merge all these technologies so we can improve both proactive and reactive responses. Many of these advancements are new and are under evaluation.

In what ways does the no-snitch culture in the black community hinder crime-fighting efforts and investigations?

The African-American community has been instrumental in working with police to solve crime. We all want to live in a safe and peaceful community. I see a trend, especially among some of our young people who do not want to report crime. This trend is in no way limited to African-Americans. We have utilized positive interaction and educational technology to help us overcome this dynamic. We established a text tip line (420-8911) because many of our kids text more than they actually talk. Some people are reluctant to provide their names, so we developed our confidential tip-line number (892-5000) to encourage all citizens to provide information to us. To be successful in changing this mind-set, it will take the entire community, and it should start with adults and parents. All of us have a role to play in making our community safer.

The chief talks about crime 03/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 8, 2009 1:50am]

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