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Bend your fender? Police will be there

St. Petersburg officers will again investigate minor wrecks and document domestic arguments.

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- For the first time in nine years, city police officers will soon start investigating minor car accidents and writing reports on domestic arguments.

The decision to reinstate those services was unveiled Thursday during the third goal-setting retreat since Chief Goliath Davis III was appointed in 1997. The duties were eliminated in 1991 to focus on community policing -- solving neighborhood quality-of-life problems.

Investigating fender benders, not just major accidents, will increase the traffic crash workload by 6,000 cases. It takes between five to 20 minutes to investigate a minor accident. Currently, drivers simply exchange license and insurance information at the scenes of many minor crashes without injuries.

The service, as well as written summaries of domestic squabbles, can be provided without asking for more money to hire additional officers, police administrators say. The changes will take effect in November.

"We believe we can do this with our present personnel," Maj. Tim Story told the 80 officers, residents and union representatives gathered in the downtown Bayfront Center.

Police also painted a rosy outlook for St. Petersburg during the retreat, which ends today. Crime is down. Arrests for drugs and prostitution are up. Search warrants are up. And citizen complaints are down.

"We all have a common goal in this room, and that is improving the city of St. Petersburg," said Diane Leikam, a police training specialist.

Still, administrators want to beef up police officer recruitment and make patrol staffing decisions by matching the number of officers with workload. They also want to put more officers on the street without necessarily increasing the authorized budget of 538 patrol officers.

The patrol unit has been down 40 officers because of retirements, but the administration says those vacancies have been filled by new hires as well as cadets in some phase of training. The department now is 11 people over its authorized budget of 538 sworn personnel but those people are 18 months away from hitting the street. The money to pay for the over-budget officers is pulled from a pool of unused police salary money.

"The process of catching up is going to take a while," said Story, who led the discussion on staffing.

Adding one officer really means hiring six officers to cover the three shifts and account for sick time or vacations, Story said. That position, staffed and outfitted around the clock and seven days a week, would cost the city nearly $485,058, he added.

"I'm not trying to scare anybody off with this, but these are the real numbers," he said.

Peter Bellmio, a national police consultant, is helping the department decide how to provide additional services without asking for more money to hire patrol officers. He was hired after the civil disturbances in 1996 to assess how personnel were assigned and how officers used their time.

Bellmio will be in the city next week to study response times, calls for service, the number of officers and their attendance records and the number of units sent to calls and how long they spend there, among other factors. The city wants to improve its response time to life-threatening calls from 7 minutes to 6 minutes.

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