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Question the candidates

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001

As the March 27 general election approaches, the Times will ask questions designed to help voters learn where the mayoral candidates stand on important issues facing the city. Candidates are asked to keep their responses to fewer than 300 words. Answers are edited only if they exceed that length.

Today's question:

Is the St. Petersburg Police Department adequately staffed and equipped to fight crime? If not, how specifically would you propose the city pay for additional officers and/or equipment?

Rick Baker

At election time, in the debate over police staffing, it is always more politically expedient to assert that we need more officers. Our community has a well-deserved respect for our men and women in uniform, and to increase their numbers seems a logical response to our desire for increased safety.

But if adding 20 officers makes us more safe, then why not add 40, or perhaps 80. We need only look across the bay to find that there are cities with more police officers per resident then we have in St. Petersburg, yet they also have much higher crime rates. What is the correct number, and how do we go about determining that number?

Our city has chosen to address the question by professional review. On various occasions, our police department has consulted with recognized experts in the field to evaluate the department on many levels, including the adequacy of staffing. The most recent analysis reported in January, 2001 concluded that we have adequate staffing, and presented recommendations on how we can better use our existing force more efficiently.

In the debate over whether we have hired enough officers to reach our authorized strength, it is easy to get confused by the campaign rhetoric. The bottom line is that we must use every effort in a tight employment market to recruit a sufficient number of officers so that we have enough to protect our community. As mayor, I will work with our police department toward that goal.

Kathleen Ford

The City of St. Petersburg Police Department is not currently adequately staffed. There is neither an adequate number of actual sworn police officers nor non-sworn personnel.

Therefore, St. Petersburg's finest are stretched pretty thin at times. Some in the police department count cadets (who may not graduate for months, if at all) pending hires and field training officers who are not sworn and cannot legally enforce any laws.

Until very recently, the number of officers coming into the force was not coming close to the number that were leaving. As of March 13, the city was still short 14 actual sworn officers. Rather than subsidizing a bailout of the Florida International Museum (at $200,000 per year), I would prefer to allocate those resources for public safety, specifically for police officer salaries.

Most officers believe they have the equipment they need. We, however, need to appropriate funds to equip our officers for incidents relating to weapons of mass destruction -- protective gear, masks and self-contained breathing units, in addition to hardening our targets. We need to make sure our communication equipment is compatible with the county's. We need to make sure all officers have take-home vehicles (Penny monies are used to fund this program).

Finally, the City needs to replace the communications center computer and integrated computer systems. The Computer Assisted Dispatch System (CAD) is aging and in need of replacement. New computer programs are needed to develop a patrol management information system. The community also needs ready access to data to monitor drug and prostitution, search and seizure data.

Our St. Petersburg police officers are out there protecting us every day and every night. They deserve adequate back up support.

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