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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Joe Brown Columns

Mayor faces his biggest decision yet

When St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman introduces his four finalists for police chief at a public forum on Thursday, he’ll be confronted with a simple question: inside gal or outside guys?

It’s going to be Kriseman’s biggest decision so far. The police department is the city’s biggest, with a budget of more than $91 million and more than 750 sworn officers and civilian employees.

The position has been vacant since Chuck Harmon resigned just as Kriseman was taking office. The insider to replace him is Assistant Chief Melanie Bevan. There’s also Goodyear, Arizona, Police Chief Jerry Grier; Montgomery County, Maryland, Capt. Terry Pierce; and New Haven, Connecticut, Assistant Chief Thaddeus Reddish. I’m sure all are well-qualified, but the mayor must decide if he wants stay in house or shake things up with someone who can bring a fresh approach to the department. From my experience, there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

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Those from St. Petersburg already would know how things operate and what the problems are. They likely will have a love for the city that an outsider would have to acquire over time. They also might have the respect of fellow officers that an outside hire would have to earn. In other words, the inside person can hit the ground running.

On the other side, an outsider can come in and look at things from a fresh perspective. They frequently are hired as police chiefs when a mayor feels a change in the culture is needed. This usually follows a major scandal or a series of incidents that cause local residents to lose trust in the department, which seems to be the case for a lot of folks who live south of Central Avenue.

Back in March, a meeting was held at the Mount Zion Missionary Progressive Baptist Church on 20th Street South. Those in attendance told Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin of being disrespected by St. Petersburg officers and asked for an outside agency to investigate the department, which means they might favor a an outsider for the new chief.

To improve things, however, those who have the power to make changes need to know what needs to be fixed, and most of the time that comes by way of input from the rank and file.

My experiences with outsiders who took over has been mixed. In many cases, telling them what needs correcting and what they might be doing wrong was taken as criticism, and no real progress took place. With others whose egos weren’t so fragile, it worked out.

I’ve also seen contempt and jealousy from long-time staffers who were passed over in favor of an outsider. That’s only natural, but it can be a good thing if changes are needed. It all depends on the situation.

Politics and community relations aside, the most important ability the new chief must have is to make the streets of St. Petersburg safer. That, above all else, has to be the No. 1 requirement.

Those who are interested may meet the candidates from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N.

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