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New chief asks: Just give me a chance

On his first full day in his new job, St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon tries to reassure a divided city.

By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2001


On his first full day in his new job, St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon tries to reassure a divided city.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The city's new police chief, Chuck Harmon, spent his first full day on the job talking. All day.

He woke up and had breakfast with Mayor Rick Baker. He met with reporters and his staff. He spent hours on the phone talking with residents and community leaders. And, finally, he ended the workday after a nighttime meeting with neighborhood leaders.

A day after his predecessor was fired, Harmon faced the considerable burden of trying to limit fallout from the firing of police Chief Mack Vines, reassure a divided community and Police Department, and win confidence in his ability to lead.

"We're going to be okay," said the 42-year-old Harmon, a 19-year department veteran who canceled his upcoming two-week vacation.

The former assistant chief of patrol will encounter resistance at the helm. The rank-and-file union officers plan to vote after Jan. 1 on whether they have confidence in the new chief.

"If that's what they choose to do, so be it," Harmon said. "I think they all know me. I think there will be varying degrees of popularity."

In four formal meetings and 35 telephone conversations Wednesday, Harmon got congratulations and advice.

He started his day at 7:15 a.m. with Baker. They met at City Hall and walked several blocks to the Atlanta Bread Co. During a 45-minute conversation, Baker told him the department "was going to be my police department to run," Harmon said.

The mayor also offered a tip: "Meet with as many folks as possible."

Harmon got with Mike Dove, deputy mayor of neighborhood services, and asked for a list of upcoming neighborhood meetings and some names of residents with whom to meet.

After his appointment with the mayor, Harmon traveled back to the Police Department, where he took questions from reporters. He sat still, facing five television cameras.

Harmon joked, "At least they're not guns pointed at me."

Then he talked business, saying he would ask first-line supervisors to meet with officers to reassure them.

"I'm going to ask them to make an extra effort to build some bridges, to go out and make sure the officers know they're heard," he said.

He'll have to win people's trust and overcome the backlash.

Sgt. Bill Lusby, who is answering to the third police chief in a year, said he feels "like somebody kicked me in the stomach."

"The man wasn't given an opportunity to do the job," Lusby, a 28-year veteran, said of Vines. "I just think this was handled all wrong."

To help the department heal, Harmon said he will use every resource, including former police Chief Goliath Davis III and Jack Soule, union president.

"I think I need to be a very active listener," Harmon said.

Harmon was still working from his old office and had not had a chance to move into the larger chief's quarters Wednesday.

Evidence of his passions -- golf and Florida State football -- adorn his office. Among the mementos: golf hats, a photograph of FSU coach Bobby Bowden, and a small gorilla dressed in FSU regalia that plays the school's fight song.

Concerned about any possible perceptions of insensitivity, police spokesman Rick Stelljes grabbed the gorilla and stuffed it into a desk drawer after it was noticed by a Times photographer during an interview.

After media interviews, Harmon met with his staff. He spoke with his top administrators at a regular weekly meeting about guiding the Police Department according to the principles of Davis.

"His focus is moving the department forward," said Maj. Reggie Oliver, who oversees property crimes detectives. "He talked about how he's keeping the same tenets in terms of respect, accountability and integrity, and how we're all responsible for those tenets."

Baker and Harmon ended the day together, speaking briefly to about 50 members of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

"I'd offer my congratulations, but I might suggest therapy," resident Karl Nurse told Harmon.

Harmon asked the group -- many of them angry that Vines was fired -- to help him move the city forward.

"I've been here 20 years, and I'm committed to this city and to y'all," Harmon said. "I ask, as the mayor did, just give me a chance."

-- Staff writer Leanora Minai can be reached at minai@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8406. Staff writers Mike Brassfield and Leonora LaPeter contributed to this report.

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