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St. Petersburg's four police chief finalists face intense questions

Goodyear, Ariz., police Chief Jerry Geier, right, a finalist to become St. Petersburg chief, answers questions from Bernice Darling, center, president of Lake Maggiore Shores Neighborhood Association, at the Coliseum on Thursday.
Published Jun. 20, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — The final four police chief candidates went on a whirlwind meet-and-greet tour Thursday, taking questions from city administrators, council members, police officers and residents.

After interviewing with Mayor Rick Kriseman and other top staffers, the candidates were grilled for two hours at the Coliseum.

"Fire away," said Jerry Geier, chief of the Goodyear Police Department in Arizona, addressing a crowd of police employees and residents.

People did.

They asked candid questions, wanting to know how each candidate planned to address homeless issues, staffing at the department and juvenile arrests. Over and over, the finalists also were quizzed on how they would fix fractures inside and outside the department.

"There's a perception that there's a division within the department. That the main things are racial and generational," resident Tom Lally told Thaddeus Reddish, an assistant chief at the New Haven Police Department in Connecticut. "Not being in the force, we don't know. What are you going to do to address that?"

Reddish said he'd already heard opposite viewpoints about the department just on Thursday. But he said he won't just take things at face value.

"I'm going to come in, look what's going on and judge for myself," he said. "Everybody can't win."

Mayor Rick Kriseman met and interviewed each candidate earlier this week.

Terrence Pierce, a captain at the Montgomery County Department of Police in Rockville, Md., and Reddish were interviewed on Wednesday. Assistant St. Petersburg police Chief Melanie Bevan and Geier had their interviews Thursday.

A city spokesman said several other administrators sat in on the interviews. They included Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, City Administrator Gary Cornwell, chief of staff Kevin King, Human Resources director Chris Guella and Neighborhood Affairs director Mike Dove. The mayor also invited Jim Sewell, a widely respected retired figure in local law enforcement, to the interviews, officials said.

During the event at the Coliseum, people were encouraged to fill out comment cards and email the mayor their thoughts.

Lucinda Kennedy, a dispatcher who has worked at the Police Department for 30 years, said she appreciated being allowed to participate.

Kennedy was impressed by Geier.

"I think our department is a little antiquated," she said. "We need more officers, more detectives, more special units. He said he would look into that."

Police officers peppered the finalists with questions about call loads, report-writing software and physical fitness standards.

"I'm not going to pick a winner in my mind yet," said Sgt. Randy Morton. "They all seemed like pretty talented people."

Still, many people had a favorite by the end of the night.

Christian Haas, 25, said he would feel "violated" if Kriseman chooses anyone other than Bevan.

An outsider won't have the needed relationships with the community, he said.

"How are they going to know the culture, the history, the challenges?"

Ann Taylor, 68, said she still has concerns about Bevan's involvement with the homeless tent slashings years ago.

Her pick? Pierce. She liked what he had to say — even though in response to her question about using forfeiture funds to address homeless issues, Pierce asserted that groups are only interested in someone "writing a check."

While others gasped at Pierce's remark and tried to come to Taylor's defense, she said later that she wasn't fazed.

"He's strong. He did not dodge questions," Taylor said.

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