ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon was having a conversation with his wife Lori Tuesday night when she pointed out that he wasn’t getting on a flight with her today, to attend a family wedding.
“She brought it to my attention I was the only one who was not going to be there, and it was because of the job,” Harmon said Wednesday, before facing a bevy of TV reporters to announce his retirement, effective Jan. 6.
“She asked a pretty salient question,” said Harmon, 53. “I really didn’t have a good answer for it. That’s when I figured out it was time.
“I hope I have served the city well.”
But Harmon, who has been chief since 2001, is leaving amid a mayoral race where he has been lambasted by challengers accusing him of having exercised poor leadership, especially in the black communities of South St. Petersburg, where neighborhood leaders have criticized the department over a series of officer-involved shootings and chases.
Harmon said he knows there will be a political spin on his departure. But he already has survived two elections, and it’s customary for public safety to be raised as an issue by the candidates, he said.
“It’s always been a topic of conversation during a mayoral election,” the chief said. “People are interested in public safety, and it’s always going to be a topic of discussion.
“The position has been taking criticisms for every year that I’ve been here. Along with the bad comes the good.”
Harmon said he told Mayor Bill Foster, who’s had to answer for criticisms of the police department, of his decision about noon on Wednesday.
“It’s certainly not anybody’s decision but my own,” he said.
“He was probably taken aback by the timing, but he understood.”
Foster did not return a telephone call Wednesday.
Councilman Charlie Gerdes said he hoped Harmon’s decision wasn’t a result of the calls for new leadership made by Rep. Rick Kriseman, who will face Foster in the Nov. 5 general election, and former Councilwoman Kathleen Ford.
“I hope Chief Harmon has made this decision based upon his career and feeling fulfilled and not that he’s feeling any kind of pressure because I respect him greatly,” Gerdes said.
Gerdes said he would prefer an internal candidate familiar with the problems the city faces
“It would be my inclination to look inside first and try and identity someone who is ready to take the lead and knows St. Petersburg,” he said.
City Council Chairman Karl Nurse, though, said Harmon’s retirement is an opportunity for the city to bring in a more innovative police chief who would work more closely with other city departments.
Under Harmon’s leadership, the city missed out on federal grants that required the police department to work closely with the school district and the city’s housing and economic development departments, he said.
“Our police department has had a silo effect for quite some time,” he said.
City Council also clashed with Harmon on the use of the police forfeiture fund, which is controlled by both City Council and the chief of police. Harmon wanted to use the fund for police equipment but blocked council requests to use it to pay for crime prevention measures, such as neighborhood watch signs and background screening for volunteers who walk children to school through tough neighborhoods.
“It’s been a wrestling match,” Nurse said.
Harmon’s departure begs the immediate question about who will succeed him.
Kriseman has said there should be a nationwide search. He also couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. A campaign spokesman said he was attending a funeral.
Throughout the primary, Kriseman was critical of police policies, saying he would restrict pursuits, restore community policing and that officers need to show more respect to residents.
Kriseman called on Foster to delay any decision on Harmon’s replacement until after the November election.
“The next mayor should select the next police chief,” he said in a statement.
Harmon said he supports a nationwide search but that two of his assistant chiefs should be considered: Melanie Bevan, who’s in charge of the administrative services bureau, and Luke Williams, who’s in charge of the patrol division.
One or both is likely to serve as an interim chief after Harmon leaves, as a search is expected to take some time, Harmon said.
Harmon said he is leaving the police department in good shape, with high morale, a dwindling crime rate and a solid familiarity with technology.
His most difficult point was in 2011, when the department lost three officers in the span of months. On Jan. 24, Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Sgt. Thomas Battinger were killed by Hydra Lacy Jr., and on Feb. 21, David Crawford was slain by Nick Lindsey.
“That takes a lot out of you,” Harmon said.
Both Bevan and Williams would make good candidates for new chief, Nurse said. But he said the city should also open up the position to candidates from outside the department.
Harmon joined the St. Petersburg Police Department on Nov. 8, 1982, and became a sworn patrol officer on May 14, 1983, according to the city.
Harmon rose steadily through the ranks. In 1986, he became a field training officer, responsible for training new officers. Four years later, he was made a sergeant and was supervising the department’s field training officers.
By 1998, Harmon was a major, supervising more than 100 employees and overseeing police operations in west St. Petersburg. The following year, he was named assistant chief of the Uniform Services Bureau.
When Harmon was tapped to replace Mack Vines in 2001, critics noted that he had no experience in traditional police fields other than traffic. He had never worked as a detective, in the vice and narcotics squad or in internal affairs.
Harmon earned a bachelor’s of science degree in criminology from Florida State University in 1982 and a master’s degree in public administration from Troy State University in 2001.
Harmon, who makes $152,315 a year, is leaving in good shape financially. His monthly pension will be $8,971. Because Harmon entered the Deferred Retirement Option Program in 2008, he also has roughly $574,000 at his disposal, not counting any interest his account might have earned.
While retired, Harmon said he expects to do projects around the house and enjoy hobbies such as fishing, kayaking and golf.
Those close to Harmon say they don’t believe politics pushed him aside.
“He’s told me for a long time that he would just wake up one day and decide to retire,” said police spokesman Bill Proffitt, who’s known Harmon for 30 years.