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    Police turnover rising in St. Petersburg

    Low pay and low morale are cited as reasons that the number of officers leaving has risen steadily since '98.

    By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 5, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- One in 10 officers quit the St. Petersburg Police Department last year, raising concerns about the department's ability to respond quickly to emergency calls and to connect with residents.

    Since 1998, the number of St. Petersburg officers who have quit has increased steadily. Other Tampa Bay-area law enforcement agencies have seen fewer resignations or any increase has not been as dramatic.

    Of the 56 officers who left St. Petersburg in 2001, 41 resigned for other law enforcement jobs or because they did not finish their probation as new recruits. The rest retired.

    "It's a transitory police department," said Bill LauBach, the police union's attorney and executive director. "You're supposed to get to know your community, but that's taken away when you've got this revolving door going on."

    Police Chief Chuck Harmon, who was appointed Dec. 18 after Mack Vines was fired, acknowledged that turnover is a major issue for the 514-member force.

    "We're going to do what we can to hang on to the people that we can," Harmon said.

    Former St. Petersburg officers cite staffing shortages, low morale, poor pay and micromanagement, particularly under the tenure of former Chief Goliath Davis III, as reasons for quitting.

    "Morale has gotten so bad because of the way the upper staff had treated officers," said Mark Douglas, a former St. Petersburg narcotics officer who resigned in November for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

    Davis could not be reached for comment Friday.

    Building a force should be a gradual process, union officials and policing experts say.

    When officers leave all at once, the department loses knowledge and experience. The new hires are usually younger, less-seasoned officers.

    "That inevitably leads to problems," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. "In places like Washington or Miami where they hired big classes because of the need, some departments were not as careful with background investigations as they should have been, and it resulted in either officers using excessive force or, in some cases, officers committing illegal acts."

    James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, agreed.

    "You need stability in the ranks of policing much more than most jobs," Fox said. "A high level of turnover disrupts any sense of attachment that may exist between police and the community."

    Turnover in St. Petersburg has been high. Last year, for example, the city hired 55 new officers; in 2000, 70.

    "The Police Department is getting younger and less experienced as time goes on," said LauBach, who has been the union attorney and executive director for seven years. "The rates of resignation now are unparalleled. Since I've been associated with the PBA, there's never been anything like this."

    Making matters worse, St. Petersburg officers are dealing with the aftermath of Vines' firing. Some rank-and-file officers said he had raised morale in just 10 weeks on the job. Vines was fired after using the word orangutan to describe the actions of a black suspect who was resisting arrest.

    Frustrated St. Petersburg officers have been inquiring about openings around the Tampa Bay area, including Tampa and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Even smaller departments such as Pinellas Park and Clearwater have gotten inquiries.

    In recent months, for example, 30 officers inquired about jobs at the Pinellas Sheriff's Office, said Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita. Eighteen have completed and returned applications.

    Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice, who oversees 912 law enforcement deputies, said that it is common for law enforcement officers to switch departments but that the situation in St. Petersburg is unique.

    "I've been told that we have an unusual number of them applying," Rice said of St. Petersburg officers. "I think our overall compensation and benefits package is probably better than St. Petersburg, but as far as job conditions, you'd have to ask them."

    Mark Douglas, Dennis Garvey and Dave Stang -- three officers who recently left St. Petersburg to join the Pinellas Sheriff's Office -- said that St. Petersburg's command staff does not support its rank-and-file officers. Officers, particularly those who work narcotics, get frivolous complaints about discourtesy or excessive force, they said.

    "There's no support from upper staff to the officers," Douglas said. "If you do something good, they will pick it apart until they can find something bad. Officers have stopped working hard because they don't want the complaints."

    The department is short-staffed, the officers said. It needs to hire 25 officers to meet its authorized strength of 539.

    "St. Pete officers are constantly going from call to call," Stang said, "and the big reason for that is the manpower shortage."

    Other agencies offer better pay, better benefits and less political turmoil.

    Of 15 law enforcement agencies in Pinellas County, St. Petersburg ranks seventh in starting salaries at $30,077, not including benefits. Campus police at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg earn the most at $33,211.

    Across the bay, Tampa, which has a 962-member department, starts its officers at $35,256. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office pays $34,594.

    Next week, St. Petersburg police and city officials will rekindle pay negotiations after a declared impasse.

    Harmon, the chief who has been on the job for little more than two weeks, mentioned starting a formal exit interview process for officers but nothing is under way. If one had been in place, officials could have determined why about half of the 41 officers who resigned last year did so for other jobs.

    "I'm going to see what I can do to stem the tide," Harmon said.

    The union has its own ideas.

    "The solution is you pay them what they're worth," said LauBach, "and you get responsible management in there that can address the needs of the police officers."

    - Times staff writer Leanora Minai can be reached at minai@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8406.

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