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Curtsinger: good start on "the long haul'

St. Petersburg is a city that is committed to building for the future. It looks as though city administrators have chosen a new police chief with the same beliefs. Since Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger took over the department Aug. 27, he has left no questions about who's in charge. The Los Angeles transplant has been popping up everywhere from crime runs to ribbon-tying ceremonies for officers called to reserve duty in the Persian Gulf _ sometimes even wearing his uniform, a rare sight in this city. On Tuesday night he personally swore in a new citizen patrol for the Jordan Park public housing complex. On the same evening he drew enthusiastic applause with some straight talk to a citywide Crime Watch group.

On a visit with the Times editorial board last week, he spoke of the importance of laying the groundwork years in advance for policing the city. He emphasizes improving police training and reducing crime by dealing with its root causes. Curtsinger made one of his first orders of business getting to know the black community in particular.

That doesn't mean he shies from tough decisions. In his toughest move so far, he provoked strong criticism by failing to promote the lone black candidate on the list to one of five openings for lieutenant. He later promoted a black detective to sergeant.

The toughest problem, he said, is that there are so few minority officers _ only 48 of 398. He has vowed commitment to quality promotions of minorities through stronger recruitment and preparation, and he will be closely watched to see if he delivers on that promise. But he deserves a fair chance.

Curtsinger's statement at the time shows how he thinks. "I hope that they would . . . not base their decision on my affirmative action performance based on one decision," the chief said. "What you have to do is look at the long haul."

What observers see so far is a hands-on leader who seems tough but fair, a good listener who seems to care about people and his adopted city. He'll need all that to deal with its growing problems, including a department plagued by low morale and high turnover.

The verdict isn't in on Curtsinger, but he has made an impressive beginning.