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Hire from within or look outside?

By LEANORA MINAI and MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Who will be the city's next police chief?

Insiders in the department have a powerful advocate: outgoing Chief Goliath Davis III.

"We don't do very well when we go outside," said Davis, who will weigh in on the decision before he steps down from the chief's post Oct. 5 to become deputy mayor for midtown economic development. "We have talent within the Police Department that can step up to the plate."

But the president of the police union says the city needs a fresh start.

"Why we think it's important that someone come from outside is he or she does not know anybody and they're able to draw their own conclusions, review personnel files and make decisions on their own," said Jack Soule, president of the Pinellas County PBA.

Soule said the union wants to participate in the selection.

Mayor Rick Baker says he will conduct a nationwide search, but he has yet to develop a blueprint for hiring the city's third chief in four years.

Two obvious prospects already working in the department are assistant police chiefs Chuck Harmon and Luke Williams. Both veteran officers were promoted by Davis but have not been assistant chiefs for long.

Harmon, 41, has worked for the Police Department nearly 19 years. He is in charge of the patrol division and will assist Davis in the department's daily operations until at least Oct. 5, when a new chief is appointed.

"He and I will be joined at the hip for a while," Davis said of Harmon.

Harmon said he will handle complaints and personnel and will review statistics, as well as calls for service and staffing -- "the whole schmear."

He starts a 10-day vacation today and says he has not given thought to applying for chief.

"I haven't discussed it with my wife, my family or anyone else," Harmon said.

His colleague, Williams, has been with the department 16 years and is assistant chief of criminal investigations.

"If I am approached, of course I would entertain that idea," Williams, 37, said of applying for chief. "But my focus right now is running the Investigative Services Bureau."

Besides, he said, laughing, "I think there are people who would have seniority over me."

The only other assistant chief, Debbie Prine, says she has no interest in the job after 31 years with the city.

"I'm retiring in three years and six months," said Prine, 48. "It's been a great, great career, but enough's enough."

Experts recommend that the city should definitely look at candidates inside and outside its police department before choosing a new chief.

"When you pick a new police chief, it charts the course: Where do you want to go for the next five years?" said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., non-profit group that helps cities pick police chiefs.

Three smaller cities in Pinellas County recently searched for police chiefs.

Pinellas Park hired from within. St. Pete Beach whittled down a list of 90 applicants before hiring Crystal River's police chief. Largo got 68 applicants and chose a deputy chief from Buffalo Grove, Ill.

The challenge is finding just the right fit, said Largo City Manager Steven Stanton.

"Police departments are such dynamic organizations, especially one like St. Petersburg, where you have a department at war with itself," Stanton said. "That department has such a dramatic, confrontational dialogue with itself. It will be a real choice job for some police chief."

The search could draw a lot of interest from around the country.

"I think St. Petersburg is a very attractive place, viewed nationally as a progressive place, a good place for someone to be a police chief," said Wexler, of the Police Executive Research Forum.

Baker, St. Petersburg's mayor, said he does not feel pressured to hire an African-American. But given the city's history of racial tension, Baker wants the person who takes the job to have "sensitivity to all parts of the community."

Some neighborhood leaders expressed concern over Davis doing two high-pressure jobs at the same time. They want Baker to quickly hire a new chief.

"It's imperative to get someone into that chief of police position very quickly with all of the things that are going on," said Michael Palozzi, president of the Greater Woodlawn Neighborhood Association. "It's going to be a tremendous challenge for Go Davis to manage his new responsibilities and manage his old responsibilities. That's just an awful lot for one person to do."

Davis said that after 28 years with the Police Department -- four as chief -- he will leave without unfinished business. The community, particularly African-American neighborhoods, trust the Police Department more now, he said.

"I think we've created the right kind of atmosphere that we need, and now we have to maintain that and make sure we don't do anything that takes us back to where we were," said Davis, 50.

The city, he said, must select a chief who embodies respect, accountability and integrity.

"The most difficult part of that is going outside," Davis said. "It's tough, but you have to make those assessments based on resumes, interviews. It's tougher when you're dealing with an outsider."

St. Petersburg's two police chiefs before Davis were from outside. Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger, who came from Los Angeles, was fired for alleged racial insensitivity in 1992 and later ran unsuccessfully for mayor. Darrel Stephens stepped aside in 1997 after two nights of racial disturbances and complaints of low morale among officers.

Omali Yeshitela, a city activist and former mayoral candidate, said for the next police chief to be successful, he or she will have to know the history and understand the pulse of the city.

"I am not certain that anyone coming from the outside will be able to even understand or recognize that political context," Yeshitela said.

Larry Williams, former mayoral candidate and City Council member, said he disagreed with some community leaders who think only a local police leader could be successful.

"I would say the politics of divide and conquer needs to stop," Williams said. "That might be best done by a national search."

- Times staff writers Leonora LaPeter and Kelly Ryan contributed to this report.

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