Given the extraordinary power that police are afforded in our society, Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman may make no greater decision during his first months in office than who will be St. Petersburg's next police chief. For 12 years the department has had the steady leadership of Chief Chuck Harmon, who is retiring. But recent events suggest the agency and city will benefit from a fresh set of eyes. Kriseman has wisely committed to conducting a national search for Harmon's replacement, scuttling a search run in-house that Mayor Bill Foster had initiated. Candidates for the job should come fully prepared to address several issues that need new focus, including:
• Community relations. Residents in some of St. Petersburg's southern neighborhoods have increasingly complained that police on patrol there have a cavalier attitude, including speeding through neighborhoods and harassing residents. Radio transcripts released last week that led to the suspension of three officers and the resignation of another do nothing to dispel those assumptions. The next chief, along with Kriseman, needs to make rebuilding trust in the Midtown and Childs Park neighborhoods a priority, starting with demanding officers act professionally.
• Police-involved homicides. Seven times so far this year, a St. Petersburg police officer has shot and killed a criminal suspect in the line of duty, compared with just one incident in 2012. At least four times the suspect was also mentally ill. Each individual case may be justified, but the next chief should revisit the department's ongoing officer training — particularly on dealing with the mentally ill — and press local and state elected leaders to provide additional community resources for the mentally ill.
• Chase policy. In 2010, under Foster, the city weakened a long-standing ban that had prohibited officers from initiating high-speed chases except in the pursuit of violent suspects. Now chases are allowed for anyone accused of a "forcible felony," adding burglary and vehicular theft to the list. But such chases often put innocent bystanders at risk and aren't worth the cost. Kriseman has said he'll change the chase policy, and he'll need a police chief who appreciates why that's necessary.
• Take-home cars. Even as the city diligently cut costs during the recent recession, one police officer perk was actually expanded. Foster agreed to let even patrol officers who lived out-of-county use their patrol cars — and city-paid fuel — for their commute of up to 40 miles. Foster and Harmon both initially resisted having a frank discussion about the cost of paying the gas for those officers living outside the city: $400,000 a year — or 16 percent of the department's fuel budget. The next chief shouldn't be so averse to exploring whether that's the best use of taxpayer resources.