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Police union leery of ride-along policy


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- Riding with a police officer could become nearly as tough as becoming one if the police union is successful in restricting members of the public from spending a shift in a patrol car.

Currently, a police officer can refuse to allow a member of the public to ride with him. But Chief Goliath Davis III recently proposed that officers be required to take requesting members of the public out.

The union contends that having a ride-along should remain voluntary, as it has during the past four years. The only way union members would agree to mandatory assignments is if 14 hurdles are passed before a member of the public climbs in a cruiser.

"They proposed that we do some kind of check for any infectious or airborne diseases," said Julie Upman, St. Petersburg's labor relations manager. "They wanted the participant to be searched for body microphones."

Through June, about 120 people had ridden with officers. Most had some connection to law enforcement. They include police applicants, family members, law enforcement officers from other agencies, criminal justice students, prosecutors, the media and people attending the citizen's police academy.

So why is the union opposed to visitors?

Officers said Friday that they worry they could be injured if their attention is diverted by a civilian riding with them. They also complained that Davis was trying to burnish his image by using police officers as props.

And, as Officer Roy Olsen said in describing why the public isn't always welcome in a cruiser: "Some days you just don't feel like it."

Some of the disagreement might be rooted in a city administration decision in 1998 to appoint a vociferous police critic to serve on the Citizen Review Committee, which reviews police disciplinary cases but has no power. That appointee was Chimurenga Waller, a local leader in the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, long known for its harsh criticisms of police conduct in the black community.

At the time, the union threatened to stop providing ride-alongs to members of the review board.

Fewer and fewer officers have been willing to let the public ride along. That prompted Davis to order that officers must accept visitors.

Other law enforcement agencies, such as the Tampa and Clearwater police departments and Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, do not order officers to accept ride-alongs. "We don't dictate," said Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita.

Upman says the ride-along program is good public relations. She said the union is raising a stink only because it does not like being told what to do.

"The more citizens you have out there who understand what officers face every day, the better for the department," Upman said.

Upman and union representatives made their cases in a three-hour hearing Friday before special master Robert Bressler. He told both sides to write their positions and send them by mail by Dec. 22. His ruling is not binding. Either party can appeal his recommendation to the City Council, which has the final say.

"I do not believe that the union appreciates the chief's desire to have a public relations program on the back of the Police Department," said Bill LauBach, union attorney. "Their job is to police."

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