1. News

Criticized in mayoral election, St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon to retire

Published Sep. 5, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Chief Chuck Harmon, the longest-serving police chief in recent city history, announced Wednesday to top city leaders and his staff that he will retire Jan. 6 — a year earlier than expected.

"It's a tough decision," Harmon said later as he stood in front of television cameras at the police station. "It's just my time."

With a dozen years at the helm, Harmon's tenure, while steady, hasn't always been smooth. The roughest point came in 2011 when three officers were killed in the line of duty in two shootings less than three months apart.

"This was his decision," Mayor Bill Foster said Wednesday. "He's just tired. He's been contemplating this. This is not a forced departure."

Harmon, 53, said he had planned to announce his retirement in the next few days, but moved up the timetable after the Tampa Bay Times inquired about his exit. He said he couldn't elaborate until he informed the mayor, whom he met with shortly before 2 p.m. An official announcement followed.

Harmon's retirement wasn't a complete surprise — he has to retire by May 2015 because of the state's deferred retirement program — but the timing had many people buzzing.

Harmon faced an onslaught of criticism in the months leading up to the Aug. 19 primary, with mayoral candidates criticizing his leadership, the department's loosened chase policy and the chief's method of community policing. The pressure was expected to mount in advance of the Nov. 5 general election, where Foster faces challenger Rick Kriseman, who has questioned many of Harmon's policies.

With crime rates down, Harmon said last month that candidates had no choice but to attack him even as Foster called the criticisms unfair. The cross hairs are familiar as Harmon also was a target during the 2009 mayoral election.

Harmon said Wednesday that politics did not factor into his decision. In fact, he said, he hadn't discussed his decision with Foster before because he didn't want it to be an issue in the campaign.

"This is my 12th year," he said. "I've been through quite a few mayoral elections."

Late-night calls and recent shootings have taken a toll on Harmon, said Detective Mark Marland, head of the police union, which at times has battled with the chief.

Harmon's wife encouraged him Tuesday night to hang up his holster, Marland said, adding: "He's doing what's in the best interest of his family."

Harmon said he has thought about retiring before, but his decision was cemented Tuesday night as his wife prepared to go to an out-of-town wedding. He is the only member of the family who won't be there.

"I've been on call for 18 years," he said. "It takes a toll."

Harmon said he's proud of the progress the department has made during his tenure.

When he became chief in 2001, he said, there was more tension between the union and the administration, between the community and its police force, and to some extent, between police and City Hall.

Marland demurred when asked to rate Harmon's tenure, praising the chief for getting new protective equipment after the officers were killed in 2011.

Marland did say he wished Harmon, generally known for being soft spoken with an aversion to the spotlight, would have spent more time addressing officers at shift meetings to help boost morale.

"He didn't think that officers wanted to see him," Marland said. "The officers do want to see him."

One of Harmon's most controversial moves came in 2006 when he scrapped a method of community policing that called for an officer to be assigned to every neighborhood. Duties are now shared among a smaller group of officers, and reaching out to neighborhoods is expected of every officer.

That decision continues to be subject to debate, most recently with Kriseman advocating a return to the old method.

After learning of Harmon's impending retirement Wednesday, Kriseman called on Foster to keep him informed.

"I believe no final decision on the next chief should be made until after the November election," Kriseman said in a statement. "The next mayor should select the next police chief."

Kriseman has said the next police chief should be the result of a national search, a point he and Foster agree on.

Foster said Wednesday he will "absolutely" look nationwide for Harmon's replacement.

Qualities he is looking for include character, management skills, education and the desire to use 21st century technology to improve policing in Florida's fourth-largest city.

He stressed that two assistant chiefs, Luke Williams and Melanie Bevan, also will be considered for the job. Harmon called both "viable candidates."

When asked if members of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association prefer an internal candidate or an outsider, Marland said: "We're looking for the best candidate out there to lead us for the next 10 to 15 years down the road."

City Council Chairman Karl Nurse said he favors a national search.

"It's an opportunity for us to look for more innovation and problem solving in our police department,'' he said.

Council member Charlie Gerdes cautioned against that, saying it could lower morale for officers who aspire to rise through the ranks.

"There is something to strive for," Gerdes said. "If you go outside, you're telling the entire force nobody is worthy. I don't like sending that message."

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, also thinks the department should look internally.

He said Harmon was a good guy "who has put his time in."

"He must feel this is a good time to make his exit."

There has been tension recently between the department and some in the black community after a string of high-profile chases and two cases in which officers shot at people in cars.

Foster and Harmon met with African-American leaders this summer to quell frustrations.

Sykes, who was advocating for Williams to get the post, fears an outsider could bring tension to the department.

"An unknown entity, no one knows what to expect."