Behind the News

The St. Pete police chief interview I’d like to see

chief-harmonI like St. Petersburg Times‘ columnist Bill Maxwell.

As a dorky newspaper-lovin’ teen in the mid 1990s, I often read Maxwell’s columns. When I moved back a few years ago, I was oddly comforted by seeing his mug again in my daily paper. I’ve always enjoyed his frank demeanor, to-the-point writing style, and mostly, his conservative, tough love approach toward St. Pete’s racial problems.

But his recent interview with St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon? Gag me.

Maxwell’s fluffed up interview with the city’s top cop is so PR-friendly, I’m tempted to call police PR flack Bill Profitt and ask if he’s retiring. Is Maxwell positioning for a job as the newspaper industry falters?

Here’s why a tough interview in the city’s top daily is important:

Chief Harmon is a politician. It’s the nature of the job — police chiefs are political animals, subject to the winds of public opinion and whims of city officials. Sure, they have to run a department and act as top administrator for one of the largest facets of city government, but they must also report to their own boss. In this case, Mayor Rick Baker, and making sure it’s “another great day in St. Petersburg” has been Harmon’s top job requirement for some time.

So that means tough questions are in order, especially considering the myriad of issues at the St. Petersburg Police Department.

First, there is the perception of crime in St. Pete. By many accounts, the city is undergoing a crime wave. Just look at the string of violent gas station robberies that culminated into the shooting of an undercover officer. Of course, Chief Harmon insists crime is down. But as some suggest, that may just be a numbers game.

And this police administration knows a lot about numbers games. Two years ago, I reported on the department’s problem with keeping police officers. The SPPD was in the throes of an attrition problem that was sapping the department of its most experienced officers while failing to retain its new recruits. So to make it seem like the city had enough police officers, Harmon included rookies who could not yet be on the streets alone. Just this year, Harmon says they have reached the authorized level of officers — 540 — but now some say that may not be enough.

Then, there’s the very real issue of low morale. In 2007, an independent auditor released a study on the SPPD dubbed the “Matrix report” that found a majority of police officers felt they were inadequately staffed and were dissatisfied with their work environment. Complaints included a breakdown of communication between the administration and rank-and-file, pay issues and a series of disputed policies, like the one that prevents police officers from any car chase, unless it’s necessary to catch someone suspected of having committed a violent felony.

But Maxwell never touched these issues. He almost got there — like his question about Harmon’s seemingly distant demeanor and his failure to assure citizens that the SPPD is doing everything it can to catch the bad guys — but most of his questions just scratched the surface.

So what should Maxwell have asked? I prepared a handful of questions that gets a little more to the point:

  • Whether overall crime is down or not, citizens do not feel safe in their neighborhoods or in public places like Baywalk. What do you intend to do to change this perception?
  • Since the release of the Matrix report, what have you done to improve morale at SPPD?
  • Many officers are upset over certain policies that they say hinder their ability to catch criminals. They often cite the chase policy as an example. Have you considered revising the policy, and if not, why?
  • Don’t you think policies like that give criminals a “you can’t do anything to me” attitude?
  • How many officers are on the city’s streets at any given time?
  • You talked to Bill Maxwell about the “no-snitching” code. What has the police department done to change attitudes in the black community about police?
  • Some police officers and citizens believe there is a relationship between the SPPD’s top brass and members of the Uhuru Movement, specifically that police officers in Midtown are “toned-down” so as to not upset that activist group. Is this true?
  • Does the threat of riots every influence any of your decisions toward policies in Midtown?

I plan to send my questions to Harmon next week, even though unemployed journalists are rarely granted exclusive interviews. But I’ll let you know what he says. In the meantime, what would you ask Chief Harmon?

6 thoughts on “The St. Pete police chief interview I’d like to see”

  1. Scott Gunsaullus says:

    With regard to the rise of crime (or lack thereof) in St. Petersburg, perception is not reality and is largely dictated by what the media reports. You misleadingly refer to Troxler’s February 1st column as a report, thereby inferring the transmission of new information. In that column Troxler does little to dispute Chief Harmon’s contention as fact that violent crime was down from 2007 to 2008. He only makes light of Harmon’s use of such statistics.

    Yes, crime statistics are a “numbers game” but they are the only quantifiable benchmark for which to hold our public safety forces accountable. Violent crime is down. This is a statement of fact. As a journalist, it is your responsibility to prove this fact true or false. To dismiss it all as a numbers game is a supreme cop out (no pun intended).

    Annecdotal evidence does not prove a trend and it should not be used as a benchmark for public safety policy. In St. Petersburg, the issue is not whether crime is up or down but whether that community should raise it’s standard for the level of crime it is willing to accept.

    Of course, additional spending on public safety and/or a change in police tactics will, at best, only suppress the symptomatic elements of crime. Crime is in most part a function poverty, the conditions of which have been long ignored in St. Petersburg. I suspect that the citizens of St. Pete won’t be feeling much safer, until the underlying causes of their anxiety are addressed.

  2. Alex Pickett says:

    Scott,

    Good comments and thanks for keeping me on my toes. You’re right about Troxler’s column. There is a Times article that says much the same thing, but I liked the way Troxler put it. I changed the word above to be more clear.

    However, I disagree with your fundamental points. The SPPD has for years put up the excuse “crime is down,” when in fact, several facets of the crime rate were going up. In a 2007 story, I pointed out that “crime was down” but murders were higher than they’d been in years. To me, that’s another one of these “lies, damn lies and statistics” scenerios. This year, “violent crime is down” but robberies, which I call violent, especially considering recent events, are up. To say “crime is down” is a cop-out (to use your pun) by the SPPD in my opinion.

  3. Tom Tito says:

    I would have said more about the problem finding tips and witnesses in black majority neighborhoods like mine. We have an active “stop snitchin” group and only a few of us work to turn that around.
    The chief does what he can with what city council gives him to work with.

  4. paul Mccummiskey says:

    Why dont you ask him about paul mccummiskey and why was he arrested with no evidence.That St.Petersburg police officer who arrested him quit 3 weeks after the shooting and has not been found since. The supposed 12 year old who witnessed the shooting and put paul mccummiskey in jail with charges that could send him away for life has dissappeared. Why did the cops lie on the report. Paul was on the phone to 911 when the arrest happened and the report and the recording don’t match up. Ask him about the steroids and testing the cops for steroids.Talk to him about Det . Gary Gibson who is married and had a sexual relationship with the ex-wife of the man who chased Paul McCummiskey and tried to kill Paul.I have evidence on all this and more. I have evidence on very rich St.Petersburg lawyer who has a restaurant in downtown St.Petrsburg and who is a central player in mortgage fraud with a JUDGE and a few other lawyers. I have the evidence.Just sit with me face to face and I will show you all the evidence.

  5. paul says:

    building “MY CASE.”

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