St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon fell back on his familiar routine Thursday before the City Council. Where the city needed reassurance about the community's safety, he recited crime statistics; where it needed leadership, he repeated canned lectures on how people can avoid being crime victims; where it wanted details, he largely stood behind protestations that providing any insight would jeopardize investigations. But there is a difference between safeguarding crime-fighting techniques and being too secretive for the public good. High-profile crimes can be more powerful than dry statistics in shaping public perception. Leadership requires attention to both.
Harmon did offer a few helpful tidbits that put some of St. Petersburg's crime statistics into better perspective. For example, he explained that a 90 percent increase in burglaries in the Childs Park area is due to the theft of wire, fixtures and air conditioners from vacant homes, many of them empty because of the foreclosure crisis. That statistic helps explain the 14 percent increase in burglaries citywide last year, Harmon suggested. He explained how new remote check-in procedures mean patrol officers begin their shifts immediately on the street, not in the station. And he credited a juvenile diversion program with the 40 percent drop in stolen vehicles.
But he barely addressed the two recent crime trends that have shaken the city's perception of public safety: robberies and shootings at convenience stores and the recent spate of cab driver robberies. The chief said he could not share details, but he certainly could have offered more reassurance that the department is aggressively responding.
Several council members, starting with Chairman Jeff Danner, tried to coach the chief that he needed to do a better job addressing citizens' lack of confidence. Harmon's answer: More citizens need to get engaged in crime-watch programs and stay involved. Too often their interest peters out when crime moves on, he said.
Council member Leslie Curran recommended the chief make himself more visible: "I want to see you out there; it goes a long way in showing citizens" that things are under control. Harmon nodded in agreement but then suggested a lenient criminal justice system is to blame for upticks in crime. "People would generally be shocked and surprised what happens on the back end," he said, because the system doesn't keep people incarcerated long enough.
And when council member Jim Kennedy asked how the Pinellas Trail might be made safer, Harmon offered that people could protect themselves against crime by using common sense, such as never using the trail alone or after dark. Then he segued into an observation that part of the problem with convenience store robberies was that they opened their doors to strangers and had cash on hand.
Surely, the chief wasn't suggesting those businesses were responsible for their robberies or the shooting of their employees — or more recently an undercover police officer. But such off-key remarks reinforce the notion that Harmon is tone deaf when it comes to hearing nervous residents and reassuring them. The chief may have statistics largely on his side, but he is losing the public. As the races for St. Petersburg mayor and City Council heat up, crime and the Police Department's performance will once again be top issues — and Harmon should not expect rave reviews.