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Chief reaches out to city, puts imprint on department

It's 6 a.m., and Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue is jogging through the damp breeze along Bayshore Boulevard.

His T-shirt and shorts are the uniform of a half-dozen others on Bayshore, fellow fitness buffs who don't realize they've just trotted past Tampa's top cop.

For the half hour it takes him to run 3.6 miles, Hogue enjoys this rare pleasure: anonymity.

Ninety minutes later, he's sitting at his meticulously organized desk on the 10th floor of downtown police headquarters. His black police uniform fits perfectly over his tall, lean frame, his shirt tucked in with military precision, buttonholes marching a straight line to his belt buckle.

In the year since Hogue was sworn in, he has become known as a visible, accessible police chief who'd rather attend roll calls and ride out on midnight patrol than work at his desk. He considers himself a cop who just happens to be chief. A very busy cop.

Over the past 365 days, Hogue has introduced a major shift in police philosophy and reorganized the 1,350-employee department to create a third district to patrol the high-crime East Tampa area. He successfully negotiated a new contract with the police union and, with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, instituted better training for officers to deal with the mentally ill.

As soon as he became chief, Hogue announced that all officers _ chief included _ would have to pass a physical agility test. More recently, he was the first in the department to get zapped when training began for officers armed with Tasers _ gun lookalikes that shoot jolts of electricity.

"When I hired him I thought, "Here's someone who's straightforward, no nonsense, who's going to get the job done,' " Mayor Pam Iorio said recently. "How I sized him up is really how he turned out to be."

Back when the mayor chose Hogue to replace retiring Chief Bennie Holder, she made clear her priorities.

Iorio and Hogue agreed Tampa's crime rate in 2003 _ No. 1 in property crimes and No. 2 in violent crimes among U.S. cities similar in size _ was too high. Iorio told Hogue she was sick of open-air drug sales and related crimes in East Tampa and in the city's public housing complexes.

"She said, "I know you can't get rid of all the drugs, but I want something done about these drug holes,' " Hogue recalled.

So he obliged. Quickly.

By his fourth month on the job, Hogue had created a third district to police east and central Tampa and had announced that officers would now adhere to the philosophy of community policing, a tactic he employed as police chief in Fort Walton Beach.

Officers couldn't just react to reports of crimes anymore; they had to become entrenched in their patrol areas. No issue would be too small. Trees blocking signs, drug dealers threatening neighbors _ officers had to deal with it head-on.

Getting officers to adopt that approach has been his biggest challenge, Hogue said, but he expected that. But he points to the numbers to show there has been change.

Between January and August, officers embarked on 186,709 self-initiated investigations _ 62,258 more than in the same period last year, according to department statistics. They made 35,352 arrests, a 21 percent increase from 2003, and issued 79,153 citations, 61 percent more than in the first eight months of 2003. Crimes including rape, murder, car theft, robbery and larceny are down 16 percent this year compared with the same eight-month period last year.

Hogue gave each district its own specialty squads to deal with drug sales and street-level crimes such as car thefts.

Since January, officers have made about 4,500 drug arrests _ 46 percent more than during the same period last year.

One of the biggest busts came in August, when dozens of uniformed and undercover officers worked with state and federal agents to arrest more than 50 people accused of being part of an international drug ring that reaches from Honduras to the Central Park public housing complex near downtown.

Capt. Marion Lewis, who oversaw the August drug bust, says he's very happy with the chief's concentration on drug sales, but worries Hogue puts too much store in numbers.

"When you put as much emphasis on statistics as he does, there's a tendency to create bad stats," said Lewis, head of the department's narcotics unit. "Someone you probably wouldn't have ticketed, you ticket. Somebody you wouldn't normally arrest, you might put in jail."

In fact, the latest crime statistics are in Hogue's e-mail basket when he gets to work every day. He calls them the department's report card.

"I look at a 16 percent crime reduction, and I know that we had 3,000 to 4,000 less victims in Tampa," Hogue said. "All of these numbers relate to less human misery."

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Hogue's office is filled with pictures of his wife, Charlotte, and two grown children, as well as snapshots of his days as an up-and-comer in the department. But you won't find him there too often.

He likes to go to roll calls, where officers talk about what's happening in their patrol areas and what to look out for in the upcoming shift. And he regularly hits the streets with officers working the midnight shift. If he has a free hour, he drives around in his department-issued beige 1999 Ford Crown Victoria, checking out neighborhoods where he knows there is work to be done.

Once or twice a week, he attends neighborhood meetings, where residents tell him of concerns big and small. Many Saturdays, he goes to community picnics, marches and charity events.

"Maybe this sounds simplistic, but I really am just a police officer," said Hogue, 56, who first joined the Tampa Police Department 31 years ago.

"I just happen to have gotten lucky, or had good timing, and moved up to police chief. But I still love going out on patrol."

Officers and residents have noticed.

"He's more visible and outgoing than Chief Holder," said Lewis, president of the Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. "He has a hands-on approach, but he believes in pushing the power to the bottom, to the workers."

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One of three sons of an Air Force colonel, Hogue graduated from Plant High, joined the Air Force for four years and came home to get his degree at the University of South Florida.

He spent 23 years with the Tampa Police Department, moving up the ranks to major, and then took a job as Fort Walton Beach's police chief. He stayed seven years before returning to Tampa last year.

Hogue remains, in many ways, a military man who runs a tight ship.

He gets to work about 7 a.m. and typically doesn't see home until after 7 p.m., with every hour in between tightly scheduled.

His office is immaculate, papers stacked neatly, pictures hung just right, phone messages held secure with a paper clip. The only sign of clutter is his desk calendar _ a collage of scribbled phone numbers, penciled-in reminders and random doodles.

His police car is pristine. No coffee cups, no leftover food wrappers.

"When you're in basic training," Hogue said, "you learn there's a place for everything."

In dealing with the hundreds of men and women who work under him, he is friendly, his humor quick, his manner easygoing. But after the pleasantries, he wants to know what they're doing. What's going well? What's not working?

At a recent meeting with leaders of the third police district, Hogue listened as Maj. George McNamara talked about a "hot area" for auto thefts. Then Hogue asked about a spike in burglaries in a couple of neighborhoods and wanted to know what the drug trade has been like in Central Park since the big bust.

Then Hogue talked about a West Tampa resident he met at a neighborhood watch meeting the night before. The man told Hogue that officers never dusted his car for fingerprints after it was stolen and then recovered.

"If I had one thing I hear where we could make a little improvement, it's that you have to get your officers to dust for fingerprints in auto burglaries and thefts," Hogue told the police gathered there. "That's valuable evidence. One fingerprint puts a guy in the car."

Then it was time to leave for another meeting.

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Hogue's tenure so far has been free of major controversy or high-profile crimes. Yes, there have been headlines he'd rather not have seen and TV news segments that made the department look less than stellar.

But when conflicts have threatened to bubble over, Hogue acted quickly to turn down the heat.

When Ybor City businesses and patrons started complaining about rowdy teens a few months ago, Hogue doubled the officers patrolling the entertainment district on busy nights. On the first night of stepped-up enforcement, officers made 46 arrests. Hogue drives through the area on weekend nights to see how things are going.

He recently began outfitting patrol officers with Tasers, a popular law enforcement weapon that is the subject of national debate. Knowing the questions surrounding Tasers' safety on humans, Hogue volunteered to get zapped first. Then he invited the media to watch as dozens of other officers got hit with the Taser as part of their training.

Hogue said he's grateful his first year has been relatively calm, but he knows the honeymoon can't last forever.

"I'm sure there's a controversy out there waiting for me," he said. "This is the police business."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or svansicklersptimes.com.

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