St. Pete’s 3 a.m. ‘Last Call’: How much difference can one hour make?

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From the outset, Chuck Harmon and the St. Petersburg Police Department have been opponents of the effort, which I helped lead, to move the City of St. Petersburg’s “last call” from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m.  If you listened to Harmon’s testimony on the day of the successful vote, the Chief, who could not produce one shred of empirical data proving that a later last call was in any way more dangerous than the status quo, seemed most concerned that he’d have to, darnit!, push some paper around and tinker with his sacred Officers’ Schedule.

The horror!

Mayor Bill Foster, who has been neither particularly supportive of, or opposed to, the later last call, actually had to interrupt his Police Chief and say, to the effect, that the Police Department would make their schedule work if the City Council voted to extend the last call, which it did.

The later last call, by all accounts, has been enormously popular, despite what critics, like City Councilmember Leslie Curran, predicted.  Not because more people are staying out to 3 a.m. each night but because the entire culture of downtown is changing so that people looking for a good time do not cross the bridge to Tampa as much as they once did.  So it’s not just busier at 3 a.m., it’s busier throughout the night.

Like any good police department, St. Petersburg’s recognizes that this an opportunity to ask for more money.  Evidently, the PoPos are spending a lot more time answering calls for service in downtown St. Petersburg.  And, according to Chuck Harmon, the later last call is to blame.

“We’re going to be a victim of our own success,” said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon.

St. Petersburg Times analysis of police data downtown shows that officers there responded to 70 percent more weekend calls for service — basically, any task an officer takes on — since the bars started closing at 3 a.m.

The number of arrests jumped 151 percent compared to the same period of time — mid May through December — in 2009.

How much difference can one hour make? Back in 2009, when bars closed at 2 a.m., patrons were already headed home. Police calls and arrests plummeted after closing time.

But in 2010, officers were at their busiest when the bars closed at 3 a.m. The number of police calls from 2 to 4 a.m. in those later weekends shot up by 210 percent. Arrests exploded by 253 percent.

But what these juked stats — and that’s what they are, juked stats provided by a department looking to get more money for its overtime budget — don’t show is what these calls for service are for…or that there is a much younger population living in St. Pete than in years’ past…or that the police department itself is not doing a good enough job acting as a deterrent against those who act in a way which requires a call for service.

The real, deep-down issue here – besides just handing over a pot of money to the Police Department – is why the heck can this PD not handle these kinds of situations?  The St. Pete Police Department, rightly or wrongly, could not keep BayWalk safe and that entertainment complex has withered away.  Now, the Chief and his PD are saying they are almost too stressed out to keep downtown safe because of a later last call.  Figure it out, Chief Harmon.  I don’t hear the Sheriff complaining about being stressed out and much of Pinellas County instituted a later last call.  Hmmm…maybe the Sheriff could help with downtown St. Pete.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.