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Police chief wants to keep morale poll off the record

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon wants no official record of why officers left.

By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Chief Chuck Harmon has dispatched a special team of officers to find out why 42 of their colleagues quit the St. Petersburg Police Department in the past 17 months.

But there's a catch: Harmon doesn't want the reasons in writing.

"We don't want the intermediate results reviewed by the media, to tell you the truth," said Assistant Chief Dave DeKay, who supervises 415 patrol officers.

Though discouraged, officers were told they could scribble "personal notes," which are public record, during their interviews with former colleagues -- many of whom left this year for the Tampa Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Through August of this year, 29 officers have quit the department. The exodus forced administrators to appoint a committee to examine how to retain and recruit officers.

Rick Stelljes, the department's public information officer, said Harmon was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Some officers and City Council members disagree with Harmon's dictate not to document interviews by the subcommittee of officers studying attrition and retention.

Some also wondered why officers are doing the work of a human resources executive.

Without a uniform questionnaire, the officers who interview former colleagues will focus on different issues, officers said.

"You want to make sure that everything's asked uniformly and that everyone's asked the same questions," said Sgt. Phil Quandt, a Fraternal Order of Police representative. "You may not be comparing apples to apples, oranges to oranges."

Without formally documenting comments, how will administrators see patterns and come up with solutions? City Council members asked.

"Hearsay is meaningless," said council member Bill Foster, who added that he would use the results to make policy decisions about the department. "Exit interviews are only meaningful if we can glean data to make policy decisions."

Council member Jay Lasita agreed.

"I would prefer some sort of format to the questioning to ascertain if a pattern is developing," he said. "It's going to be hard to compare notes anecdotally."

Currently, the city does not do formal exit interviews of officers.

The chief's decision to ban generating a questionnaire or other formal documents does not violate the state's Open Records Law, but it raises a red flag, said Sandra F. Chance, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

"I think when agencies encourage their employees not to put things in writing with the intent to avoid creating public records, as a citizen in that area, it would make me question the public officials' commitment to open government," Chance said.

Since the retention, recruitment and retirement committee started meeting last month, its work has been put in writing. It met for two days in August and broke up into three subcommittees.

Since then, the subcommittee studying how to retain officers gave surveys to 205 officers, asking them to list ways to prevent peers from leaving. The rank-and file told the subcommittee it wanted take-home squad cars. Longer shifts, shorter work weeks. Improved morale. Flexible schedules. A better promotion process.

But last week, the retention subcommittee was told by the chief to scrap those ideas and to start over because Mayor Rick Baker had concerns with the ideas.

On Tuesday, Harmon told the retention subcommittee to interview 42 officers who quit the department since March of last year. Harmon and the command staff also told the officers not to create documents, police said.

"Do they have to write up a formal memo on every phone call? No," said DeKay, the assistant chief of patrol. "We suggested they don't."

He said the Police Department will issue a "final document" on the work of the entire committee studying retention, recruitment and retirement.

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

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