Survey shows perception gap in Police Department

Staffers in the chief's office have rosiest view.

Published May 25, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The officers who patrol the city's streets and handle most calls for help also have the bleakest view of the Police Department and its managers.

And the employees with the rosiest view? Chief Chuck Harmon's office.

Here's one example: Just 32 percent of those in uniformed services, which includes officers who patrol the streets, say the department provides "high levels of law enforcement to the communities it serves." But 94 percent of those in the chief's office say it does.

Last week, city officials received a draft copy of a long-awaited study of the Police Department by Matrix Consulting. While the study praised some aspects of the department, its survey shows a rift between officers in uniformed services and everyone else - especially the chief's office, which includes 19 others in addition to Harmon.

Nearly all of the officers in uniformed services believe there aren't enough police. About three-fourths say the department doesn't plan well. By nearly any measurement, they are the department's harshest critics.

The consultants got 503 surveys back from 746 employees. In uniformed services, 259 of 356 employees turned in surveys. The chief's office includes Harmon and 19 other employees.

"Overall, employees viewed the level and quality of services provided by SPPD negatively, " the consultants said.

Union officials say that the time has come for the department's top administrators to acknowledge that they have a staffing problem.

"It amazed me that - according to the chief's office - this is the Garden of Eden, " said Mark Deasaro, the president of the Police Benevolent Association of Pinellas County. "If they don't say it's a problem, they don't have to deal with it."

Chief Harmon said the surveys show the need for the department to do a better job of communication. While pointing out that the study praised some aspects of the department, like recent changes to community policing, he added that he hopes to set up a task force to discuss the study after it's finalized.

But Harmon said he understands the frustrations many young officers have since police work is so difficult. If he had taken a similar survey as a young officer, Harmon said, he would have probably given negative responses to many questions.

Today, Harmon said, his experience as an administrator has given him a different view.

"Twenty, twenty-five years ago ... I would have said, 'Yeah, we don't have enough backup, ' " Harmon said. But Harmon said his rise through the ranks has broadened his horizons. "They are busy at times, but there's times they're not so busy, " he said.

Harmon added that a section of the study found police in the city have enough time to do "proactive policing, " which suggested the department had enough officers.

City Council member Bill Foster praised Harmon's idea of more dialogue, especially since the frustrations expressed by many officers relate to management issues rather than concerns about pay, benefits or equipment.

"That is Management 101, and those issues are going to have to be addressed internally, " Foster said. "All of the issues raised ... weren't so much economically motivated or city policy motivated. It was police policy and management policy that we have zero control over."

Karl Nurse, the former president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations and a current member, said the disparity in perceptions suggested the department's managers needed to do a better job of explaining decisions and listening to officers.

"I think its probably normal that the bosses and the rank and file of an organization see things differently, but that's a pretty big gulf, " Nurse said.

Sgt. Phil Quandt, a Fraternal Order of Police representative, said the survey results were linked to another finding in the study: The department's difficulty in retaining officers. Until managers addressed the survey findings, Quandt said, the department's troubles with retention would continue.

The department's attrition rate over the pasty four years is higher than most other major Florida law enforcement agencies, the study found.

"They need to tie retention and the study together and realize this study is pointing to ... why your people are walking out the door, " Quandt said. "I think it behooves them to wake up and realize: 'Man, you know what there's a problem here.' "

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or 727 893-8472.