New police chief faces skeptics
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
ST. PETERSBURG -- Chuck Harmon knows he's walking into a hornet's nest.
The city's new police chief, promoted to the job Tuesday, is taking charge of a department in turmoil in a city often divided by racial politics. Harmon, a 19-year veteran of the department, will have to walk a fine line.
"We're going to enforce the law fairly. We're not going to use questionable tactics to get the job done," Harmon said Tuesday, hours after being appointed chief. "We're professionals, and that's how we'regoing to behave."
On the other hand, Harmon will have to deal with police officers who don't trust him. Right off the bat, the police union is planning to hold a vote of confidence among its members soon to see whether officers support Harmon.
"Chuck Harmon has not demonstrated to us that he can be a fair and objective administrator," said Jack Soule, president of the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association. "He's very narrow-minded. There's a question of truthfulness whenever he talks to the officers. He's going to have a rough go of it, based on his limited leadership abilities."
Several officers, upset by Tuesday's firing of former chief Mack Vines, expressed their views outside the police station. They said they were worried that Harmon will be a puppet of City Hall and the forces of political correctness. They worry that they won't be able to arrest black criminal suspects without having their actions second guessed later.
Harmon, 42, knows perfectly well that some of the officers feel this way. He recalls officers expressing similar views after former chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger was fired for racial insensitivity nearly a decade ago.
Having spent two decades in the Police Department, Harmon is well aware of its turbulent history.
"When you're in management, you're going to have critics," Harmon said. "I believe in holding people accountable for what they do. My job is different from that of a sergeant or lieutenant. I have to look at the big picture."
Harmon said that police will enforce the law, that he will listen to officers, and that he will be consistent and fair in overseeing them.
"The mayor has assured me he's going to let me run the department," he said. "The final responsibility rests with me."
"Chuck has earned the respect and admiration of me as well as people throughout our community," Mayor Rick Baker said Tuesday.
Harmon joined the department as a patrol officer after graduating from Florida State University. He was promoted through the ranks under four police different police chiefs. Most recently, he was assistant police chief in charge of patrol.
He has dealt with tense situations on the job. Three years ago, he was working the Martin Luther King Jr. parade in St. Petersburg when he saw someone shoot a man. Harmon chased the suspect and arrested him. A crowd formed around the arrest scene, and the suspect's sister was part of it. Harmon calmed the crowd and the sister by talking with them and explaining what had happened.
Harmon was one of four finalists for the police chief's job in September when Baker picked Vines instead. Back then, Harmon described himself as the "bland candidate."
Harmon has a wife, two children and a stepdaughter. He golfs and bowls.
The mayor wants his police chief to live in St. Petersburg. Harmon lives in Pinellas Park. He has agreed to sell his home and move his family.
He has earned a reputation as being organized, self-motivated and even-tempered. But some officers think he has become more inflexible as he has been promoted.
As the city's new police chief, Harmon will earn $111,400 a year and will oversee 780 employees and a $58-million budget. For now, he won't meet with many community leaders. Instead, he is focusing inward on the turmoil in his own department.
"I'm not going to ignore the community, but I want to start here at home," he said. "We need to keep our house in order here first."
Neighborhood leaders are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Harmon. Some of them think he'll face a backlash over Vines' firing. "Chuck is a nice guy, and he does a good job," said Jim Biggerstaff, a Disston Heights resident and president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. "But I think he's going to have problems."
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Adam C. Smith