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Community policing moves on

St. Petersburg's police chief moves his officers to more traditional assignments.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published September 13, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Mildred Reece sees them more often now, the young men hanging on the street corners and in the doorways around Childs Park.

They have returned to reclaim the neighborhood. They're back, Reece says, to sell drugs. "They know when it's safe."

Across town in Harbordale, Theresa McEachern watches mobs of teens gather in the street - just like they used to. In one recent week, seven cars were burglarized.

And in Historic Uptown, Ingrid Comberg fears years of progress chasing off prostitutes have been squandered. "It's at an all-time high," she said.

"You tell them, "You're not welcome in our neighborhood' and they say, "What are you going to do about it?' They feel safe here."

Angered by such festering problems, some of St. Petersburg's community leaders blame a weakened community policing effort.

Once heralded as a back-to-basics cure for the city's woes, the program has been quietly scaled back in recent years. It now more closely resembles efforts of police in Tampa and Clearwater and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which seek to balance the experimental and standard approaches to law enforcement.

In St. Petersburg, some of the deepest cuts have come this year under police Chief Chuck Harmon. Increasingly, the city's 43 community policing officers have been pulled from their neighborhoods for special assignments or additional duties, such as responding to 911 calls. They are being used for downtown's First Friday celebration and at BayWalk.

The result, critics say, is a disconnect between the department's stated commitment to community policing and reality.

"It's been completely watered down," Comberg said. "It's not fair to the officers and it's not fair to the neighborhood."

Comberg was around in 1991 when then-Chief Curt Curtsinger introduced community policing to St. Petersburg, taking a cue from other cities. The idea was straightforward. Officers would immerse themselves in a neighborhood and learn the "who, what and why," Curtsinger said at the time. "Rather than just fighting the small percentage of the "bad guys,' the police will work with the larger percentage of the "good guys."'

Community policing follows the so-called broken window theory, that fixing small problems prevents larger ones. If the windows are not repaired, vandals might break others, go inside and perhaps start fires or sell drugs.

The concept spread rapidly across the nation in the past 20 years and remains popular. But in some areas it has seen setbacks, mostly for financial reasons. The Clinton administration's COPS program, which added 100,000 officers to the streets, has been phased out, leaving local departments to trim staff. Homeland Security grants available now more often focus on equipment.

Grant restraints led Tampa to dismantle its community policing program in 2003, giving rise to complaints similar to those heard now in St. Petersburg. When new Chief Steve Hogue started, he instructed all officers to incorporate the problem-solving philosophy into their daily work as opposed to having a separate unit like St. Petersburg's.

Harmon is not the first to tweak the community policing effort here, but some of the biggest changes have come under him. Earlier this year, Harmon mandated that community policing officers conduct two narcotics operations, two prostitution operations and two traffic details per month - a total of at least 48 hours per month. Traffic enforcement is done in a neighborhood, but drug and prostitution details can take officers away, as does downtown and other commitments.

Harmon cited two primary reasons for the changes.

--In the more than three years he has been chief, he said, the major issues cited by residents are prostitution, drugs and traffic, problems that transcend individual neighborhoods. "It's my responsibility to the city as a whole." --He also wanted more accountability. "I wasn't convinced that some people assigned to community policing areas were working to their capacity," he said.

Harmon acknowledges the bond community leaders have with their officers but contends the "vast majority" of city residents are not that involved.

"Their judgment of the Police Department," he said, "is when they pick up the phone and dial 911."

Crime statistics also call into question the effectiveness of community policing. While the overall crime rate in St. Petersburg dropped since 1991 - following a national trend as the crack cocaine epidemic waned - it has leveled off in the past five years.

Still, critics say Harmon is overlooking the real reason for the change: a shortage of officers. The department has struggled with recruits who quit during initial training or officers who leave for other agencies. There are now 16 vacancies in the 540-member department. The retention struggle has raised complex questions about management style, workplace environment and benefits.

"That's the elephant in the corner that nobody wants to talk about," said Karl Nurse, head of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, or CONA.

CONA has made community policing a top priority and pressed the City Council to add three new officers. On Thursday, however, the council passed a budget with no new spending.

Steve Plice, a CONA leader who lives in Jungle Terrace, has witnessed the diversion of resources firsthand. Earlier this summer, the community policing officer in his neighborhood was temporarily assigned as a patrol sergeant. That's still the case. Another officer is supposed to fill in, but Plice said the officer has his own area to cover. "We don't bother calling him because it's a waste of time," Plice said. "We know we're not going to get a response."

It's not an uncommon sentiment, yet critics almost universally blame the policymakers, not the officers.

Rank-and-file officers are reticent to discuss the situation. But Roy Olson, a 25-year veteran who retired last month, said many feel distracted by the new responsibilities. "If I've got a rapist in my area and I'm trying to catch him," he said, "why should I sit at a stop sign with a radar gun and write ticket after ticket?"

Another problem, Olson said, is the reliance on community policing officers for emergency calls. "The concept is if you're not busy and hear a 911 call, you can take it," Olson said. "If you have downtime, you don't mind helping out. But if you take one, dispatchers start shifting more calls to you. There were days I spent my whole eight-hour shift taking (911) calls."

Sgt. Phil Quandt was among the original community policing officers in 1991 and said the freedom Curtsinger granted paid dividends. Quandt, speaking as a union representative, recalled spending a night on a boat with another officer to crack a string of burglaries in the harbor.

Now, Quandt said, "You're telling people you've got complete and total flexibility. However, if that comes up or this comes up ... plus you've got to do this and that ... how much flexibility do you really have?"

St. Petersburg is not alone in modifying community policing. As federal funding has dried up and local budgets tightened, departments look for ways to stretch staff, said Jack McDevitt, associate dean in the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

Officials are also trying to revisit the scope of such programs to see where they work and where they don't. "It's pretty much accepted that this is a better way to do business, but there's still a lot of discussion about what it is exactly that makes a program successful," McDevitt said.

In that sense, then, Harmon's actions match the national trend. He said he still believes in the approach but feels community policing was oversold in St. Petersburg and elsewhere when introduced in the early 1990s.

"People thought it was going to solve a lot more than it's actually done," the chief said. "But we're not going to be able to solve all problems."

Harmon said he may consider other changes, including incorporating patrol officers through community policing to assuage bad feelings. "It's going to continue to evolve," he said.

But some feel the philosophical battle has tipped in favor of more traditional policing and may be hard to overcome. "The community policing strategy seems to be losing," said Nurse, the neighborhood association president. "It seems to be getting more and more lip service and less resources. And then, of course, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

--Alex Leary can be reached at 893-8472 or leary@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 13, 2005, 14:16:35]


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