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Police chief's low-key style appears to work

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 18, 2002


On the surface, Chuck Harmon looked more like a crime victim back in December than a police chief.

The mayor seemed to be dumping him into water that was way over his head and to have tied his hands behind his back.

Harmon became St. Petersburg's fifth chief in less than a decade and stepped into a job that had been filled by people who were more flamboyant, more charismatic and more practiced at swimming in the turbulent political waters that always seem to swirl around big-city police chiefs.

Surely he was going to drown. History was against him. The factions in the city that have perennially battled one another had gotten into the habit of throwing their punches across the police chief's desk.

One of his predecessors had made allies on the predominantly white north side of town and cultivated enemies to the south, and balked when his boss told him to work on mending the rifts.

Another one had given a less than stellar showing when he was caught unprepared for violence that erupted after a white police officer shot a black teenager.

Another had made friends on the south and enemies in the north when he insisted his officers refrain from profanity and treat citizens more respectfully, and he had rejected jail as the solution to the drug problem. Many residents and some of his officers interpreted the changes as an order to stop making drug arrests on the predominantly black area on the south side of town.

Still another had lost favor with the mayor when he seemed to backtrack on officer accountability, then sealed his fate with a remark that compared a black suspect to an orangutan.

On top of all that, the police union was pouting again because another chief they liked had gotten the ax.

The economy was fizzling, which meant crime was going to rise. A batch of senior officers were getting ready to retire, further draining a department already short a few badges.

And the chief was still living in Pinellas Park, counter to the mayor's wish he live in St. Petersburg.

As Harmon stepped uncomfortably into the seat hurriedly vacated by Mack Vines, who was fired after mere weeks in the job, the community waited, but the Police Benevolent Association didn't. The union announced plans for a "confidence" vote, the straw it pulls to tell the community it doesn't like the chief. However, in a rare display of common sense, the organization decided to hold off on the vote long enough that it would have some basis.

Now more than a half-year into the job, Harmon's low-key style appears to be working. No complaints of police abuse have risen to the level of public awareness as they did in the era before Goliath Davis, the chief who structured the department in a manner Harmon says he wants to maintain.

In a recent interview, where Harmon appeared much more comfortable than in earlier encounters with reporters, he seemed surprised to hear that his leadership ability had ever been in question.

He volunteered that he doesn't have charisma, that he's not going to look for television cameras and newspaper headlines, that none of that is necessary to maintain the relationship he needs with his officers and the community.

"I've been here 20 years. They trust me," he said.

Because the tenure of his immediate predecessor was so abbreviated, Harmon considers his administration to be on the heels of Davis' command. He said he and his officers have lost no ground in their relationship with the community when compared with that under Davis, when many black residents believed for the first time that the police were there also to serve them.

Internally, rumblings of sagging morale don't rate high among his concerns.

"Morale is something you deal with perennially." This is work, after all, he said. Morale, however it's defined, is always going to be an issue.

While Harmon plans to continue many policies put in place by now-deputy mayor Davis, such as the insistence on accountability and respectful behavior, he insists he runs the department and is not the puppet of the mayor's office, as some critics allege.

But in St. Petersburg, where the chief traditionally has been more visible than the mayor, we have come to expect him not just to leave a mark but to emboss his stamp on the department.

Davis did it with officer accountability when he shook up his vice unit for time-card discrepancies.

Harmon has not made such a headline-grabbing move, nor has the opportunity to make one thrust itself at him. His highest-profile decision to date has been in the case of three officers who apparently got drunk at a bar, then drove to one of their apartments and had sex. Harmon fired the woman, who was still on new-hire probation, suspended one of the male officers and reprimanded the other.

Harmon, who said he wants his leadership to be judged by its accomplishments, dismisses the notion that he must put his stamp on the department. "I think I've left my stamp along the way in the 20 years I've been here," he said.

There's something oddly reassuring in those words. They are the words of a man who's not out to make a name for himself in a sound bite or some flashy new policing experiment. They are the words of a man who has given 20 years of credible service he doesn't want to undo with a rash decision or an imprudent policy.

They are the words of a man you expect to resist the pressures of groups that often tug at a chief from opposite directions. As some elements of the community declare the city overrun by drugs, Harmon says the drug picture has actually gotten better. Of an uncharacteristically high number of homicides in the first half of this year, Harmon notes that half of them were domestic related and don't represent a higher risk for the general public.

That's not what you want to hear if you're a community leader making a mark by telling folks drugs have overrun the city. Not what you want to hear if you're a union leader who wants more cops and more pay and less accountability for officers' behavior.

But that's exactly what you want to hear if you're an ordinary citizen who wants a safe city policed by tractable officers who show up where they're needed.

That apparently has been Chuck Harmon's strong suit for 20 years.

"I'm an overachiever," he said. "I got another chance to step up, and I did."

For Chuck Harmon, that's a pretty brash statement.

And it's refreshing.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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