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Park, Walk and Talk is St. Petersburg police chief's signature program. Is it working?

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Tony Holloway has made getting officers out of their cars, walking streets and talking to residents a key plank in his effort to improve relations between his department and the community.

But three years into his administration, the success of his signature Park, Walk and Talk program can be hard to pin down.

Holloway said complaints against officers have dropped, while tips have gone up. But connecting one thing to the other is difficult, Holloway acknowledges, while saying he believes his department's approach to community policing is paying off.

"People do tell me when I'm out and about: 'It's good seeing your officers, you guys are doing a good job, keep doing what you're doing,' " Holloway said. "So the metric to me is when I hear that from people."

As part of the program, officers log how many times they get out of their cars to interact with residents, absent the report of a crime or suspicious activity. A review of police data by the Tampa Bay Times shows they did that 58,000 times in three years, though records don't show how long they walked or how many conversations they had.

Community leaders said they see officers in their neighborhoods and like the program. But they also said there may be room to improve.

"We do see them, but there are some concerns that when they're logging the Park, Walk and Talks, they're doing more parking and talking, and they're not necessarily walking," said Brother John Muhammad of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association. "We really would like to see them engaging more of the people, and not just really parking and engaging among themselves."

• • •

Officer Cory Crawford was strolling through Fossil Park one recent Monday morning when he came up to a man sipping a can of Natural Ice beer and watching ducks totter through the grass.

"Just hanging out?" Crawford asked.

"You've seen me before all around here," said James Evans, 33. He launched into a friendly chat about his living situation (in between homes) and work at the carwash up the road (he wishes he was paid more).

Before, Crawford said, he only dealt with homeless people in Fossil Park to shoo them away from the high brush where they slept. With Park, Walk and Talk, though, he said he has gotten to know people better.

"It gives you the opportunity to talk to someone on, for lack of a better term, a nice level," Crawford said. Evans wished him "God bless" as they separated. The officer never asked him for an ID and did not harangue him about the beer.

"He knows me personally," Evans said, adding that he does not cause any trouble. "That helps everything. It's an understanding. It's all about an understanding."

• • •

Park, Walk and Talk debuted at Bartlett Park in Midtown, a meaningful location for Holloway. He wanted to improve relationships especially in the city's poorest neighborhoods, where black residents were accustomed to police making arrests then leaving.

The chief asked all patrol officers to step out of their cruisers and talk to people for one hour a week, replacing problem contacts with more positive interactions. The goal was to build relationships, not make arrests for things like drinking in public. Holloway says now it would be a problem for an officer to arrest someone on every walk.

"Is he doing a Park, Walk and Talk, or is he just going to a drug hole or something else?" the chief asked. "Because he should get to know that community."

Officers have conducted about 9,000 of those walks in three years across Midtown, according to police data. In nearby Childs Park, they've logged another 3,100. That compares to 8,500 in one zone downtown and about 6,200 across whiter, wealthier areas from the Old Northeast to Riviera Bay.

Holloway said the number of what he calls walk and talks in each neighborhood corresponds to staffing. Downtown has had so many, he said, because more officers patrol there, monitoring the city's late night bar scene and congested retail and dining district.

The chief said he has not heard complaints about officers failing to do their foot work. To make sure every area of the city is getting attention, particularly places with recent crime spikes, Holloway said he spot-checks maps that analysts prepare showing where and when officers get out of their cars to walk and talk with residents.

• • •

City Council member Karl Nurse, whose district includes Midtown, said the program works.

"Across the country you're hearing demonstrations, etc., about Black Lives Matter, which is really about policing that is abusive, and you're not hearing that here," said Nurse, who was first elected in 2009. "When I took office, there were parts of neighborhoods where police never went except as a 911 call."

That included Melrose Avenue, Nurse said, where he remembers dealers passing drugs in the open and a principal asking him to help find a safe route for kids to walk to school.

Montez Shelby, president of the Melrose Mercy Neighborhood Association, said the approach has helped police feel more comfortable in her area.

"I don't think it's really been a fear. I think it's been an uncertainty of how people are going to react to them," she said. "That goes both ways."

Marlene Murray, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said there is "a huge difference" in the perception of police in many parts of the city.

In Childs Park, Muhammad said officers have made inroads with young residents but struggle with older people.

"The children, I would say that it's changing them," he said. "But you have generational divides and you have people who have historic issues with the police, and it's still some work to be done with changing them."

• • •

Programs like Park, Walk and Talk are effective if they increase respect for police, experts say.

"(Community policing) is the only way that you solve crimes, and it's the only way that you get people to obey police instructions," said Wesley Skogan, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University who studies crime policy.

An increase in tips might be a sign that it is working, but "we can never be sure of cause and effect (because) we don't have a controlled study," said Lorie Fridell, a University of South Florida criminology professor who has collaborated with Holloway in the past.

Department statistics show that tips to St. Petersburg police have risen since 2015, with 715 from July to September of this year compared to just 346 in the same period two years before. Citizen complaints made against officers and investigated by the department's Office of Professional Standards have dropped from 19 in 2014 to 11 in 2016. The rate at which police close cases has not really changed.

A more comprehensive way to measure the benefit of the program would be a community survey, experts said. But that takes time and money.

Police surveyed residents on their relationships with officers last year but only received 521 responses in a city of more than 250,000 people.

Meanwhile, Holloway has vowed to press on with the effort. He said he wants to refine the program and is encouraging more officers to walk on weekends, to meet people who work during the week.

"This will always be here," he said.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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