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Editorial: St. Petersburg has a new must-do list

It is less than six typed pages, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council should read every word. The mayor's transition subcommittee on public safety has performed a public service with a crisp, candid and critical assessment of the city's police and fire departments. Both departments need new leadership, more discipline and smarter approaches toward spending money — and the time for progressive change is now with a new mayor and a re-energized City Council.

Kriseman will conduct a national search for a new police chief to succeed Chuck Harmon, who served an honorable if unspectacular 12 years as chief before retiring this month. But there are serious issues awaiting a new chief, and the transition subcommittee concluded there "may be an underlying systemic problem'' that has led to an unusually high number of police officer-involved shootings. At least 10 times last year a St. Petersburg officer shot someone. The suspect was killed in seven of those shootings, and at least four times the suspect was also mentally ill. Officers were found to have made mistakes in three of the shootings. The trend lines are not good, and the transition subcommittee reasonably recommends considering additional training.

The report makes a number of other predictable suggestions such as tightening the chase policy (as Kriseman did last week), eliminating or restricting the use of red-light cameras, and revising the lenient policy on take-home cars that costs taxpayers $400,000 a year just for gas for officers living outside the city. But the transition subcommittee also offered two provocative proposals that run counter to conventional political posturing and should catch Kriseman's attention. It suggests an outside review to determine whether additional police officers are needed, arguing that traditional calculations are outdated. And it calls for more police interaction with neighborhoods without returning to old-style community policing, which it calls outmoded and inefficient. Kriseman embraced the philosophy of community policing during the campaign, and he should heed the report's warning that "there is no need to turn back time.''

The mayor also would be wise to follow the report's suggestion that he replace fire Chief Jim Large. The Tampa Bay Times reported last month that for decades firefighters had the remarkable flexibility to swap shifts with co-workers with no oversight by supervisors by either trading hours or paying cash. The lack of regulation appears to be unique in Florida, and Large should have tightened the policy years ago rather than acting only after the newspaper revealed the indefensible lack of oversight.

The transition committee proposes saving money in both the fire and police departments by streamlining administration, and its thoughtful suggestions should be given strong consideration by the mayor and the City Council. But change will not come easy. Spending money on police and fire protection is usually popular, whether or not the costs are justified. The police and fire unions are politically aggressive, and it is curious that three City Council members were suddenly singing the praises last week of a fire department that needs a new chief and fights every attempt to reduce emergency medical service costs. A police union official already has called for the transition report to be "shredded" and complains it is anti-law enforcement. It is nothing of the sort.

A respected retired assistant police chief, a former firefighter and union leader, and a neighborhood association president are among the members of the transition subcommittee who wrote the report. It provides an excellent road map for improving the police and fire departments by embracing the future rather than clinging to the past.

Editorial: St. Petersburg has a new must-do list 01/13/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 13, 2014 5:37pm]
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