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Chief says policing style will be a 'balancing act'

In his first political appearance, Chuck Harmon faces the "Tigers.''

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[Times photos: Jennifer Davis]
Gail Michael and her husband, Robert, listen Thursday during the police chief’s talk to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg.

By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 11, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he is no Steve Spurrier or Rudolph Giuliani.

Then who is he?

"I'm going to stick my neck out at times, and at times, I'm going to have to be careful," Harmon told 137 people gathered for lunch Thursday with the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club. "It's going to be a balancing act."

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Chuck Harmon laughs after calling himself mayor instead of major while describing his career. He called it a slip of the tongue, not a career goal.
Three weeks ago, Harmon was appointed chief after Mack Vines was fired.

At 42, Harmon inherits a staff of 514 officers, many of whom are unhappy with salary issues and the administration's style of law enforcement.

"There's one thing that I really need y'all to know," Harmon told the audience when he took the podium. "I am not coach Spurrier. I am not going to be coach Spurrier, and I'm not going to coach like coach Spurrier."

The audience chuckled.

His appearance before members and guests of the Tiger Bay Club was his political debut. Known for their questions, members -- or as they are called, "Tigers" -- lobbed a few softballs but also swiped at the jugular.

Joan Deguire, a 30-year St. Petersburg resident, asked the toughest of the dozen questions and won a stuffed tiger at the end for doing so. She told Harmon that past police administrations have followed a path of least resistance with drug enforcement only to keep peace in a community rocked by civil disturbances five years ago.

"The perception is that you have two choices: You can follow the path of least resistance or you can put your head in the noose. Which one would you choose?"

Harmon said that his policing style will be a balancing act.

"I just need to be careful how I balance," he said.

Bob Safransky asked Harmon if he would implement the "mayor Giuliani type of law enforcement."

Harmon said Giuliani's style would not be successful in St. Petersburg. Giuliani was known for a tough stance on law and order.

Harmon is not rigid when it comes to strictly enforcing certain minor crimes. He says he will attack issues based on community demand, and that those issues are different in every neighborhood.

"There's so many areas and vast changes in diversity in this community that I don't think I'm going to go in there and tell you, "You know what? Everybody that drinks alcohol within 500 feet of a liquor establishment in this area of this whole city is going to be going to jail.' I don't think that's the right thing to do."

His policing philosophy is to engage the community. The top crime concerns of residents may not always be what the police consider the issues.

"Policing in itself is diverse as well as the diverse population that we serve," Harmon said. "Different areas of the city have different needs. People are going to have to tell us and work with us on issues they want addressed."

Still, one area that needs attention, according to Harmon, is drug enforcement. St. Petersburg drug arrests in 2001 dropped 19 percent compared to the year before, he said.

"We've got to build that number back up," Harmon said.

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