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St. Petersburg police begin 'park, walk, and talk' program

ST. PETERSBURG — Two months into his tenure at the helm of the city's police force, Chief Tony Holloway started one of his signature initiatives Wednesday — the "park, walk and talk."

All 550 officers in the St. Petersburg Police Department will now have to log one hour a week walking around a neighborhood and talking to people they encounter. City leaders hope it will foster trust between residents and authorities.

"We're going to get out of our cars, we're going to start talking to our communities to find out what we can do to help reduce crime in our community, in our city," Holloway said.

The Police Department has come up short in community policing for years, said City Council member Karl Nurse, whose district covers much of Midtown, where Holloway unveiled the program Wednesday.

"Officers sitting in their car playing on the computer doesn't really do very much for us," Nurse said. "That hour would be better spent getting to know neighbors" and learning of problem areas.

Each week, officers will record notes from their park, walk and talk time into a computer dispatch system, the chief said. If one neighborhood has seen a rash of crime, Holloway said, he expects to see more officers spending time in that area.

Officers in uniform are intimidating, Holloway said, but he hopes to reduce tension between people and police with old-fashioned beat walking.

Even the chief will participate, and he said Wednesday that he had walked around Central Avenue, 16th Street and 22nd Avenue N in the past few weeks. During those sessions, Holloway said, he learned about two crack houses.

Holloway instituted the park, walk and talk policy in Clearwater shortly after becoming chief there in 2010. He said it took about six months for officers and residents to become comfortable with the program.

Lisa Wheeler-Brown, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said the initiative could cut into the "no snitching" culture she has fought since her son's murder in 2008.

"When you're only used to seeing the officers come into your neighborhood to arrest either your loved ones or someone you know, you start to get a bad taste in your mouth about police," Wheeler-Brown said.

After Holloway's announcement Wednesday, patrol officers took to the streets around Bartlett Park. Officer Joshua Hall strolled past trash barrels rancid in the hot sun along 22nd Avenue S, stopping at porches and driveways to ask residents about their children and their homes.

Hall said he wants to change the skepticism behind the typical response he hears when stopping to talk: "Well, who are you looking for?"

Jack and Marilyn Shelby, who moved to St. Petersburg after fleeing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, chatted with Hall for about 10 minutes while they dried rugs on their front lawn.

Jack Shelby, 68, acknowledged that it will take time for residents to become comfortable with the police.

"After they start seeing them regular and regular, it's going to get better," he said. "See, today, it's going to scare the poop out of them."

His wife, 63, said she will be happy to see officers more often. "I love the law if they're for the right things," she said.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @zacksampson.

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