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Groups laud police work; even once-vocal critic chimes in

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The police department's third goal-setting retreat ended as a love fest Friday:

Citizen complaints against officers are down.

Community police officers are here to stay. In fact, Disston Heights will get an extra one.

Once a vocal critic, the president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations is happy with the department's work.

"These neighborhoods out there think you guys are great," Jimmy Biggerstaff, the council president, told the gathering of about 80 officers, residents and community group representatives in the downtown Bayfront Center.

They met Thursday and Friday to plot the police department's course. Chief Goliath Davis III invited them to this third retreat for input on what, if any, changes should be made to staffing and policies.

The staff announced Thursday that patrol officers would once again investigate minor car accidents and write reports on domestic arguments. Those services were eliminated in 1991 to focus on community policing -- solving neighborhood quality of life problems.

Based on past retreats since his 1997 appointment, Davis has revamped the way patrol officers are organized by assigning more sergeants for more supervision. He also consolidated some community policing areas, and based on calls for service, cut back or increased the number of officers assigned to work quality of life problems in those areas.

"When I took it over," Davis told the Times of the department in 1997, "it was a mess."

More changes are on the horizon. Davis pointed out that they will be deliberate and organized.

"You do it in manageable doses," he said. "Too much too quick puts the organization in a state of shock, and the people have a tendency to shut down on you and become overwhelmed."

Increasing patrol supervision and promoting accountability is why the number of citizen complaints has dropped, he said. At the same time, the number of complaints against officers by department personnel has gone up 43 percent, a trend the administration also attributed to more supervision.

"We had a lot of people not used to functioning with any kind of rules," Davis said.

In 1998, there were 205 citizen complaints about officers, according to an Internal Affairs annual report. That dropped last year to 182. As of Aug. 31 of this year, the public lodged 116 complaints.

In addition to supervision, Davis and his administration have focused on accountability. They now require community policing officers to attend neighborhood association meetings and ask the officers to maintain a list of the top five priorities in the neighborhood.

Across the city, the top concerns are speeding, prostitution and street level drug sales.

Biggerstaff, the CONA president, was once unhappy with the department's enforcement of traffic offenders and prostitution. He has made a 180-degree turn. He told the retreat participants Friday that neighborhood association presidents are pleased with their community police officers as well as the department's weekly work on nabbing speeding motorists by setting up speed traps.

"Two years ago, I had a lot of problems," Biggerstaff told the group. "I see a lot of progress this group has made."

Yet, Biggerstaff cautioned the group, "When a problem comes up, you can be sure to see me in here ranting and raving."

Biggerstaff spoke out earlier this year on the department's decision to cut down on community police officers.

But Davis assured him Friday that moves like that are based on calls for service. An officer will be added to Community Policing Area 84, which now has one officer. Starting Jan. 1, there will be an officer assigned to Disston Heights and another to the Central Oak Park neighborhood.

"I wanted to tell you I'm impressed by the police department," resident and Community Alliance member Mary Brown told Davis. "I didn't know all of this was going on."

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