St. Pete Police Chief discusses staffing levels, crime

02/05/09 Seán Kinane
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Because many of their constituents have told them they don’t feel safe, the St. Petersburg City Council questioned the city’s Police Chief during a two-hour workshop today.

Chief Chuck Harmon pointed to trends that show the city’s crime rate is actually declining.

A year ago, Robert Gordon, Sr.’s son was murdered and his body burned, but the case has not been solved. During the Council meeting that preceded the workshop with Chief Harmon, Gordon asked why the police haven’t found his son’s killers and why Harmon keeps insisting his department doesn’t need to hire more officers.

“I hear the assigned officers saying that they don’t have enough manpower. Well, the Chief of Police says they do, in so many ways. Approximately two weeks after my son was murdered, a white Caucasian female was murdered across from SweetBay. Less than a week, they found the culprit.”

Gordon says he gave the police leads on possible suspects, but didn’t even get a courtesy call. Harmon says the Gordons have been contacted by his department more than 20 times in the last year, nonetheless, he has just implemented a policy requiring the police to keep in monthly contact with families of unsolved homicide victims.

In his presentation on crime statistics to the City Council, Harmon insisted that he did not need any more than the 540 officers that are already authorized, even if they would be partially funded by the economic stimulus package making its way through Congress.

Councilmember Jamie Bennett, who is also running for Mayor, is not convinced that the city has enough police on the street. Bennett says that St. Petersburg “can’t afford not to” apply for federal stimulus funds to increase the police force, but acknowledges that the Council can not compel Chief Harmon to do it.

Harmon, while maintaining a firm stance against increasing the police force, said he is always willing to look at any federal dollars, and deferred to his boss, Mayor Rick Baker. Baker says he is looking forward to the police force being at its full strength of 540 officers for the first time in the city’s history but might consider federal funding for more police.

Chief Harmon says that how police resources are deployed is more important than the total number of officers. A maximum of 123 officers are deployed during a typical day, 148 during the evening, and 69 during the midnight shift, according to Harmon, who estimates that it would cost a half-million dollars per year to keep an extra officer on duty 24 hours per day.

Councilmember Wengay Newton held back tears when telling Chief Harmon he gets phone calls from parents “with murdered kids.”

Harmon says that St. Petersburg is a safe city but not immune to crime. In 2008, total crime was at its lowest rate since 2000, as was violent crime, while the 14,000 arrests last year were the highest ever, according to Harmon. One of the only crime statistics that is increasing, Harmon says, is burglaries, which are higher than ever, in part because of the economy.

In other business:

Under city rules, when a St. Petersburg City Council member resigns before the end of a term, Council will appoint someone to finish the term. But Council voted Thursday to change the rule for the vacancy that will be created when Jamie Bennett resigns to run for mayor. A normal election will be held this year for that District 5 seat, in addition to the others that are on the ballot. In the future, Council will look at making that change permanent.

Also on Thursday, Council decided that the League of Women Voters will moderate this year’s televised debate of candidates running for city positions.

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