Chuck Harmon capped an honorable 12-year tenure as St. Petersburg police chief this week with a well-timed plan for retirement in January. Harmon will leave the job as crime is down and officers are better protected against dangers on the job. Both Mayor Bill Foster and his challenger Rick Kriseman said they'd favor a national search for his replacement. It should be up to whoever wins the mayor's job in November to pick that successor.
Harmon, 53, has never seemed quite comfortable as the chief of the department where he has spent his entire career. Then-Mayor Rick Baker named Harmon to the post in 2001 after firing Chief Mack Vines over an insensitive comment just three months into the job. Harmon was the fourth chief since 1996, when racial disturbances erupted in St. Petersburg over a white police officer's shooting of a black man believed to be driving a stolen car. The city needed dependable, professional leadership. Harmon has provided that.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, the chief lacks the bravado of many law enforcement leaders and is willing to admit mistakes — such as in 2007, when his officers slashed the tents of a homeless camp. Harmon, who had approved the plan, admitted the mistake and in recent years has worked with Foster to more humanely deal with homeless people on the city's streets. He also has failed at times to be pro-active, such as taking more than a year recently to figure out how to efficiently address security during downtown's extended weekend bar hours.
But Harmon has been willing to publicly disagree with his boss, even if he eventually acquiesces. He initially challenged, for example, Foster's push to allow more high-speed chases and questioned the effectiveness of installing surveillance cameras throughout the city.
In this year's mayoral election he's taken heat for a 2006 decision to end the community policing model in which officers were assigned to a particular neighborhood. He saved money by adopting a more centralized approach. Mayoral challenger Kriseman says residents want the city to return to the old model, yet crime is down in St. Petersburg and there's more than one way to connect police with their community.
In 2011, Harmon led the department through the deaths of three officers in two shootings three months apart. Calm and measured, he also allowed the public to understand the department's pain, in one press briefing holding onto the badge of one fallen officer and the wedding ring of another: "I'm having a hard time letting them go. … These gentlemen … I am going to miss them." In the months that followed, he responded with new equipment and policies aimed at improving officers' safety.
Union officials suggest officers would like a leader who is more visible. And as the hunt for his replacement begins, much of the city's search will be framed in the context of what Harmon has and has not done. But for 12 years he has provided St. Petersburg stable police leadership and done so honorably. Now, in retiring a year early, he has served the city again by providing the next mayor, whoever it is, a fresh slate and the best chance for picking a quality successor.