Police staffing levels defended
St. Petersburg's numbers differ from other cities' because of a variety of factors.
By Mayor Rick Baker and police Chief Chuck Harmon
Published June 25, 2006
In a recent article, the St. Petersburg Times gives voice to a union official's position that the authorized level of police in the city of St. Petersburg is too low, based on a comparison of the number of officers to city population and similar ratios of other major Florida cities.
With the extraordinary progress St. Petersburg is making, this is a legitimate question to consider, especially in light of our desire to maintain the best law enforcement agency in the state and a safe environment for our citizens.
The determination of any city's authorized police level is based on many factors. Although population size is relevant, it is misguided to focus on population solely, ignoring important factors such as the number of calls for service an agency receives, the influx of commuters who live outside but work inside the city with the concurrent traffic and crime issues or the geographic size of the area to be served.
As an example, on a typical work day the city of Tampa has a net inflow of nonresident commuters of 144,051 people, while St. Petersburg has a net inflow of only 2,439. Also, while Tampa's resident population is about 20 percent larger than St. Petersburg's, its police department serves city limits which are 90 percent larger than the area of our city (116 square miles in Tampa versus 61 square miles in St. Petersburg). Obviously it takes more officers to cover an area almost twice the geographic size that experiences a 48 percent increase in population during business hours.
St. Petersburg's present authorized uniform level of 540, the highest level in city history, was determined after an evaluation of all factors recognized by experts in public safety, and was in place when St. Petersburg's Police Department recently became one of the few law enforcement agencies in Florida (less than 10 percent) to receive both state and national accreditation.
The Times article concludes that the Police Department "struggles to fill vacancies," citing that St. Petersburg had 513 officers on the street as of a certain date chosen in March, and an authorized level of 540. The authorized level is the budgeted number of officers which the police chief may hire. The on-street level varies significantly from month to month due to retirements, terminations and new hires, and does not equal the authorized level in most of Florida's major cities. As of our most recent review (October 2005), St. Petersburg's percentage of on-street officers versus authorized level was 96.3 percent, comparing favorably to Miami which had 91.8 percent, Tampa 97.8 percent, Orlando 98.3 percent, Fort Lauderdale 93.8 percent and Clearwater 96.9 percent.
St. Petersburg currently has fully staffed its patrol officer positions in all three districts in the city for the first time since 1990, when our patrol strength was diverted to create the community police division. We have fully maintained the same number of community police officers that were in place five years ago. And since 2001, we have increased both the authorized level and number of officers actually on the street to the highest in city history.
The article points out that recently Miami and Tampa have seen their crime rates drop to a level more comparable to our city. St. Petersburg has also seen its crime rates drop as reflected in the FBI's report for 2005, published earlier this month, which showed reductions in both our violent crime rate (St. Petersburg down 9.5 percent, versus a national increase of 2.5 percent) and property crime rate (St. Petersburg down 5.5 percent, national rate down 1.6 percent). Our 2006 crime rates have continued a significant downward trend.
There are other factors relevant to the city's law enforcement effort. In the past five years our police response times to calls for service have dropped dramatically (down 23 percent), with our priority-one response times going from 7.1 minutes in 2002 to 5.7 minutes as of 2005. This is well below the national standard of seven minutes, and the quickest response time recorded since the city began keeping track of the number.
Our department has also been working hard to focus significant efforts in two areas most cited by neighborhoods as needing attention - drug enforcement and speeding. After establishing the street crime unit, continuing undercover operations, focusing a portion of our community police time directly to the drug effort and working closely with other local, state and federal officials, we have seen our narcotics arrests increase by 60 percent, from 1,924 drug arrests in 2001 to 3,074 drug arrests in 2005. As drugs are a significant influence on other crimes, this is an important effort that we will continue.
While tackling the difficult drug issue, we have also addressed the problem of people speeding through neighborhoods by significantly increasing traffic calming expenditures and the number of traffic citations issued (up 23 percent over the past five years).
As our enforcement has gone up, complaints against officers have dropped from 122 in 2001 to 68 in 2005, and are now at the lowest recorded level, reflecting the professionalism of our officers.
In addition to improvements within our Police Department, efforts to make our city safer include neighborhood redevelopment, crime watch, improved education for our children - especially those in at-risk conditions - job training and economic development. A community with strong neighborhoods, good jobs and well-educated children will have fewer crimes.
St. Petersburg has an outstanding Police Department staffed with professionals who are working hard and focused on the public safety issues important to our citizens. While the progress our city has made so far is impressive, we will constantly look for ways to ensure that St. Petersburg becomes a safer and greater city.
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Mayor Rick Baker and police Chief Chuck Harmon can be contacted by mail at P.O. Box 2842, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, the e-mail to reach Mayor Baker is firstname.lastname@example.org.