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Soul-searching begins for St. Petersburg chief // CHIEF STEPHENS

Police Chief Darrel Stephens remains optimistic about his future in St. Petersburg.

At least for now.

Despite increasing criticism from residents and sagging morale among officers, Stephens said Thursday he has had no time to worry about recent turmoil forcing him to leave.

"Now that all of this happened, everything has to be looked at in a new light," he said. "My performance, and our performance as an organization, has to be looked at in a new light."

Stephens said he may have made some mistakes in his handling of the two nights of unrest spawned by the fatal police shooting of a black motorist. But he is awaiting the outcome of the department's internal review of the disturbances before outlining what he or his staff did wrong.

"My sense of how I have done is not as important as other people's," he said. "There is no issue that we've wrestled with over the last several weeks where there wasn't a wide range of opinions about what should or should not be done."

Stephens said he may ask an outside task force to examine the department's performance over the past month. He hopes to make a decision about a review in the next two weeks.

"I think there is great value in people who are not emotionally invested and involved in what goes on to take an objective look at what goes on," he said.

Stephens already has made some concessions. Although he insisted early on that officers had enough equipment and proper training, Stephens since has authorized the department to buy more riot gear and has called for refresher courses in civil disturbances.

With city leaders moving ahead with an economic development plan to ease the frustrations of black residents, Stephens said he will rely on community policing to help neighborhoods resolve specific problems.

"At this stage in the game, let's see if we can get refocused," he said. "Each day we put between us and the disturbances, maybe there are opportunities to rebuild relationships or opportunities to make a difference."

Many of his officers are ready for a change.

At a police union meeting this week, several talked about a lack of leadership in the department. They said they feel discounted when they raise concerns.

The officers _ some veterans, some rookies _ reiterated complaints about being short-staffed and overworked. They are racing from call to call, the officers said, often in areas where they are not assigned.

They remain unhappy with the advanced form of community policing, called geographical deployment. The plan, a unique concept strongly favored by Stephens, restructured the patrol division.

Sergeants and lieutenants are encouraged to work flexible schedules to concentrate on the problems in their sectors, but officers say they go days without seeing their supervisors. When they need direction, they say, they must go "sergeant shopping" for advice.

The officers questioned why the department was not better prepared for the disturbances, particularly the second incident, after the grand jury's decision to clear Officer James Knight in the shooting of TyRon Mark Lewis. Before the announcement was made, the department was aware violence was possible.

Yet officers waited for gas masks and helmets to protect them against rocks and bottles. Others were pinned down because administrators had not anticipated heavy gunfire. These complaints came three weeks after officers raised similar issues during the first disturbance.

The Police Benevolent Association of Pinellas County, which represents most of the department's officers, has filed two class-action grievances with the city to complain about the lack of regard for officer safety.

Jack Soule, the St. Petersburg officer who is the union president, said officers recently responded to a survey in which they rated their confidence in police administrators. Though he is waiting to release the results as part of an ongoing strategy, Soule said the survey was not favorable for Stephens.

"All of what's happened may have given him a jolt, but I am not too sure that too much damage hasn't been done," Soule said. "Everything that has gone on and all of the issues combined, this may have opened his eyes. But I am not convinced he can overcome it."

Even before Stephens was hired in 1992 to take over a divided department, the union and some officers were skeptical. Officers said they wanted a chief whom they considered a "cop's cop," somebody who leaves the ivory tower of police headquarters to mingle with the troops and understands simple complexities such as choosing the right flashlight for his officers.

Stephens, who came here from a Washington, D.C, think tank for police executives, said Thursday that department morale is always an issue. It is the same as any business, he said.

But recently, he said, officers have endured significant stress. They worked 12-hour shifts during the disturbances and had to deal with gunfire and verbal assaults. There has been division among the ranks, he says, as other unions try to recruit members from the Police Benevolent Association. With negotiations with the city at a standstill, officers are working without a labor contract.

"We have had complaints of the decision-making, especially on the two nights of the disturbance, that were just unfounded," Stephens said.

"The fact is, decisions were made. People were deployed. People were deployed very quickly. People on every level of this department made good, solid decisions."

Still, he said, reviews of the disturbances will provide him with a new perspective.

"We are going to find out in our critical self-examination of where our plans could have been more solid," the chief said. "We are going to find out where we made mistakes. We are prepared to deal with that."

Residents have expressed concern about Stephens' department, too. A couple carried anti-Stephens signs at a pro-police rally last week. Many have flooded the chief's office with letters and phone calls. Most were positive, until the department suspended Officer Knight.

"You're gutless," one phone message said. "Shows lack of character and spine."

As his officers resume normal duties, Stephens said he plans to guide them the same way he always has: "Treat people with dignity. Treat people with respect. Do your job. Be responsive to people."

He said the community owes the officers a debt of gratitude for their handling of the disturbances, pointing out that the violence lasted no longer than eight hours each of the nights and that injuries were minimal.

"We know that we have done good work. We also know we have a lot of problems. We will try to work through the problems in a way that is constructive and helpful. But at the same time, we don't want to beat ourselves for the tensions produced."