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Sam Lynn served St. Petersburg well

When Sam Lynn hangs up his police chief hat, the St. Petersburg department will be losing one of its own, a solid, home-grown leader who worked the streets and climbed through the ranks. Lynn, 48, announced Wednesday that he will retire March 1 to head a new countywide narcotics bureau for the Sheriff's Department. He became acting police chief in 1980, and assumed the job outright in April 1981 after beating out a nationwide field of candidates. While the ensuing nine years haven't always been smooth sailing, he will be remembered for running a police department that thus far has largely escaped the kind of ugly problems plaguing some other Florida departments.

There have been some racial strains during Lynn's tenure, including charges of promotion discrimination and questions about treatment of black suspects by white officers. But while black reaction to his department seems to be mixed, he's generally viewed as an improvement over his predecessor.

Among other accomplishments, he has set tough limits on dangerous high-speed chases, set tighter arrest procedures for routine felony arrests at private residences, shut down the city's aging jail, built a model crime-watch program that has improved police-community relations, met minority hiring goals, introduced technological innovations to aid police work and won national accreditation for the department.

Some observers say, however, that the department has been slipping under Lynn in the last few years.

It's true he hasn't been the most accessible or charismatic police chief imaginable. Responding to a 1989 police union survey, city police officers complained of low morale caused by a perceived lack of concern for street officers by the department and City Hall, compounded by poor communication.

Also, in a time when serious crimes like murder, armed robbery and drug dealing are way up, each year seems to bring more citizen complaints about the number of officers on the street and decreased police service. As St. Petersburg takes some bold steps toward growth, with all the accompanying potential for big-city problems, it will need law enforcement that's up to the challenge. That will be the first task of Lynn's successor.

That Lynn's departure comes soon after he became eligible for maximum pension benefits under an earlier plan also illustrates why the city was wise to amend that plan. Granting immediate eligibility after a set number of years of service, regardless of the retiree's age, provides no incentive for further service from talented, relatively young people like Sam Lynn.