Although the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association endorsed Rick Kriseman re-election two months ago, a formal press conference touting its backing didn’t take place until Friday – three days after former mayor Rick Baker announced he was challenging the incumbent.
“Senior leadership under the previous administration was one of the main causes of the low morale and tension in the community that we had between some of the police officers and the people that we serve,” said George Lofton, the president of the Suncoast PBA at a press conference at Bartlett Park. “Today under Mayor Kriseman’s administration, we’ve got a renewed vigor in the St. Petersburg’s Police Dept. Our relations with the community are definitely getting stronger and they’re growing everyday.”
Lofton attributed much of the improvement in moral to the selection of Police Chief Tony Holloway, who Kriseman hired as one of his first major decisions.
In his campaign against Bill Foster, Kriseman promised he would bring back community policing, something that Holloway immediately implemented with his “Park, Walk and Talk” program which designed to get officers more engaged with their beats.
District 7 Councilwoman Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said before Holloway took the reigns of theSPPD, there were serious trust issues between the Midtown community and the police.
“We would see the police riding in our area, windows right up tight,” she said. “Now we have a visual of police officers walking in our neighborhood, speaking to us so that when residents see that, when the police officers come up and talk to them and say ‘Hi,’ that’s relationship building.”
Wheeler-Bowman is backing Kriseman’s bid for a second term and stressed what is becoming a theme of his campaign – that going back to the future with Baker would be a return to when St. Petersburg’s quality of life wasn’t so good, at least for residents in Midtown.
“We can’t go backwards to a City Hall that has not invested in strengthening our police department,” she said. “We can’t go backwards (to an era) that didn’t care if the police and the community worked together to solve crimes and to make everyone safer.”
Since Kriseman took over in January of 2014, crime has decreased by 6 percent, and violent crime dropped by 26 percent. That’s in sync with a national reduction in crime over the past two decades, though the last available report from the St. Petersburg Police Dept. for the first quarter of FY2017 shows a 21 percent increase in crimes from the previous quarter, and a 12 percent increase from the first quarter of fiscal year 2016.
Perhaps that’s why Baker told SPB on Tuesday that in his dozens of meetings with neighborhood associations over the past few months, “I’m hearing about the police reports … about the spike in crime going on in the city.”
“You’re going to have fluctuations on a month-to-month basis,” Kriseman said on Friday, but stood behind the overall reduction in crime since he took office.
“We still have a lot of work to do, obviously,” the mayor admitted, but said that it’s not just the enforcement of crime that his administration is working on, but the prevention as well. “We’re doing a lot of things in the community to try to lift people up to reduce poverty, to work on education issues, make sure there are jobs that pay living wages, so that there’s alternatives to crime.”
Chuck Harmon was the Police Chief in St. Petersburg for almost the entire of Baker’s two terms in office. The PBA’s Lofton said that he was the problem that led to such poor morale within the department.
“The previous administration and some of the senior management had their own agenda, and it wasn’t a healthy agenda for the city of St Petersburg as a whole, and it wasn’t a healthy agenda for the SPPD and that’s what trickled out into the relations between the police Dept. and the community,” said Lofton. He praised Holloway for being a “street cop” who hasn’t forgotten from where he came from.
“He doesn’t sit up in the chief’s office and forget that,” said Lofton. “The morale is better because the relationship between the senior staff and the 911 responders is open and 911 responders see the senior administration and especially the chief and the assistant chiefs now as cops.”