Saturday, May 26, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Council should stop meddling in police chief hire

Memo to the St. Petersburg City Council: Read the city charter, listen to the city attorney and stop trying to influence Mayor Rick Kriseman's decision on hiring the next police chief. It's solely up to the mayor to pick the chief, and the charter bans council members from interfering. Their frustration about their lack of control is understandable, but their unsubtle hints about their apparent favorite makes the mayor's job more difficult and creates more challenges for the next chief.

The city charter plainly says council members cannot "direct or request the appointment" by the mayor in most of his hires, including the police chief. They cannot act directly or indirectly, and any violation of this provision by a council member is grounds for removal from office. It doesn't get any clearer than that, and City Attorney John Wolfe even read that section of the charter to the council.

Yet several City Council members last week spent a half-hour venting about the selection process, the lack of leadership at the Police Department and the need for a quick turnaround by a new chief who knows the city. Karl Nurse warned that nonprofits renovating houses in Midtown will not wait six months for a new chief to get up to speed and complained about police officers failing to enforce the law, including rules about tinted windows in cars. Steve Kornell questioned how officers react to complaints about trespassing on private property. Amy Foster and Darden Rice said there is one candidate for police chief who understands the city and has a strategy for changing the department's culture.

Translation: City Council members want immediate action, and they apparently want the next police chief to be the only internal candidate among the four finalists, Assistant Chief Melanie Bevan. They are wrong on both counts, and they should stop interfering as the mayor makes his most important hiring decision.

While the council members' impatience is understandable, Kriseman should not rush to judgment and any new police chief will need time to make his or her own assessments. Many of the concerns Nurse and other council members raise — such as losing police officers to other cities, unequal enforcement of the law, internal grumbling about police promotions and a lack a leadership — are long-standing issues that will not be resolved in six months. Keep in mind that violent crime is down more than 45 percent since 2001, and major crime in Midtown and the city overall is down roughly 25 percent. While St. Petersburg historically has not had the best luck hiring police chiefs from outside the department, it is difficult to imagine how hiring another insider now would bridge long-simmering department divisions along racial and generational lines.

Kriseman went out of his way to ensure council members met the candidates for police chief and discussed their strengths and weaknesses with him. There have been missteps, such as shooing reporters away from the candidates. There also has been some curious micromanaging from a mayor who pledged as a candidate to avoid that, such as wading into police promotions, hiring a new police department spokeswoman and musing about changing the police uniforms. But all of that will fade away if Kriseman makes a smart choice for police chief.

Council members should stop making the mayor's job more difficult. If they want a say in hiring a police chief as they do in hiring a city attorney and city clerk, they should ask voters to change the city charter to give them that authority.

Until then, stop meddling.

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