Is that enough?
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002
At the end of his shift, Officer Randy Bricker pulls his cruiser behind the police station and starts typing on a laptop. During the past eight hours, he answered nine emergency calls, arrested a man and drove him to the county jail, a 24-mile round trip.
While he's typing a report, the police dispatcher asks for help because she doesn't have a free backup officer to send to a possible stabbing downtown. Bricker, minutes from clocking out, covers the call.
"Everybody wants a cop on their corner," says Bricker, a 12-year veteran. "Well, there's only so many cops and an awful lot of corners."
Police Chief Chuck Harmon, like his predecessor, Goliath Davis III, touts the department's budgeted strength of sworn personnel -- now at 539 -- when he talks about total staff.
In reality, 34 positions remain unfilled, leaving an actual force of 505. Just how many of those 505 are patrol officers, the backbone of the department, the men and women who respond to emergency calls? A February roster showed 198.
After accounting for days off, training or probationary officers, 97 answered calls during 24 hours on Feb. 2. While most residents slept, 28 patrol officers drove the city's 62 square miles.
Is that enough?
"I hope 20 of them are around my house," said City Council member Virginia Littrell, whose district includes downtown and the Old Northeast.
Police administrators point out that at night, as many as 50 officers are "on duty." In addition to the officers who answer 911 calls, the figure includes officers who are not committed to radio calls -- supervisors, traffic officers at a DUI checkpoint or community police officers on a prostitution sting.
The chief says he's not convinced the city needs additional patrol officers.
"We're able to keep up with the demand the way we're currently structured," Harmon said.
But officers complain that when a cluster of "hot calls" -- a homicide, a bad car wreck -- ties them up for a long time, residents with other emergencies sometimes must wait hours for help. Strapped officers say they have little or no time for self-initiated policing, preventing crimes like burglaries.
Council member Bill Foster said that 28 citywide patrol officers at one time, "concerns the stuffing out of me."
"Every time I get the sworn strength numbers, I will say, "Okay, of this number, how many of these people can go out and actually protect me?' " Foster said. "And I don't know that in my four years on council if I've ever had a straight answer."
Police officials admit there's a problem. On April 1, chief Harmon tweaked the schedule, overlapping some shifts. He rescheduled up to 18 more patrol officers citywide from 4 to 5 p.m. and 9 to 11 p.m. -- the busiest hours.
It is too soon to tell whether the changes will work.
The St. Petersburg Times analyzed calls for service with the number of patrol officers working Saturdays in February. Saturdays typically yield the most calls -- an average of 381.
A review of the Saturday staffing rosters shows that for most of the time, the department exceeded its established minimum staffing levels -- but only by a single officer about half of the time. Sometimes, the department fell short of the minimum level, a barometer Harmon is phasing out.
Harmon said it will be up to lieutenants to decide how many patrol officers should be on the street.
Jack Soule, St. Petersburg patrol officer and union president, said administrators do not assign enough officers to the street. Officers, he said, are too often sent to calls outside of their assigned neighborhoods, sometimes losing crucial minutes of response time.
From January to March, for instance, officers from other areas answered nearly half the calls in the beat that includes downtown.
That's because the police station is downtown, department officials say. People arrive at any time to report crimes or problems. Available officers -- even if they're in the Gandy Boulevard area -- are sent to the station to handle the complaint.
But that means, "those citizens out there don't have any proactive patrol in their areas," Soule said.
"Very little of my time is spent on Snell Isle for calls for service," said Soule, a 25-year veteran. "Is the community getting the most bang for their buck? I'll say no."
So does Greg Pierce, who lives in Childs Park. He called police one night recently when loud music woke him. He got in his car and followed the noise. He found a street party at 37th Street and 18th Avenue S.
"I couldn't believe it," Pierce said. "I estimated 1,000 people. There were people in cars everywhere. That's when I got on my cell phone and said, "We need some officers down here.' I was told there were no officers available. I said, "Excuse me?' "
Harmon wants 30 minute response times for less-urgent calls. For late-reported residential burglary calls from January through March, residents waited three minutes to nearly three hours to see a patrol officer.
Residents like Bruce Allums, owner of an auto repair business at Fifth Avenue S and 24th Street, say they don't expect police to rush to low-priority calls, but they don't want to wait hours.
He called police at 4:30 a.m. a few weeks ago after arriving at his garage to discover a broken door and $6,000 worth of air tools missing. Police arrived 90 minutes later.
"I don't think anybody should wait that long," said Allums, 42.
Insufficient staffing may be forcing police to respond to too many calls, says David N. Ammons, a public administration expert at the University of North Carolina.
Reviewing patrol officers' average annual call load is one way to gauge whether an agency has too many people in the station and not enough officers on the street.
In many police departments he has studied, the median annual workload for each officer was 700 to 900 calls. Day shift patrol officers in St. Petersburg respond to an annual average of 1,552 calls. Evening officers go to 1,932; midnight officers, 1,805.
"If they're up well above 1,000 calls, maybe they are stretching their resource thin," Ammons said. "I think that should signal some alarms. They may want to watch that pretty carefully."
Harmon said patrol positions are his top priority. He said he is scrambling to fill as many spots as possible before about 40 officers retire in early 2004. Tampa faces the same dilemma. It will lose 60 officers, including the chief of police.
"2003 is the mass exodus," said Katie Hughes, Tampa police spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, all Tampa Bay area police agencies compete for the same shrinking pool of candidates.
"It's right now a job that people aren't flocking to," said Peter Bellmio, St. Petersburg's police management consultant. "People can go out and make more money, not have to work shifts, not have to take the risks."
Allums, the mechanic who said he waited 1 1/2 hours for an officer after his business was burglarized, called police last week when he heard loud banging across the street.
He thought someone was breaking into the cement plant. He said 30 to 40 minutes passed before an officer came. The noise was kids throwing rocks against the building.
Frustrated over the police response, Allums decided to stake out his repair garage for three days. Each day, he hid across the street from 2 to 5 a.m.
Plenty of vehicles passed by, he said, but none of them was a squad car.
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Times staff writer Leanora Minai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8406.
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