The time has come for the chief of police in St. Petersburg, Chuck Harmon, to go.
Whether he resigns or he's fired, it makes no difference. The chief's position as the top law enforcement official has been undermined fatally in the recent actions he's taken regarding the homeless in his city.
In the wake of a police sweep through an illegal tent city that produced a YouTube-d video of police slashing the tents with box cutters, Mayor Rick Baker began last week by fobbing off criticism for the decision by saying he was not aware of the action before it was taken.
The St. Petersburg Times pinned the decision to slash on a meeting headed by Harmon and other public safety officials. A police major in that group was credited with the specific box-cutter plan.
Harmon must shoulder the ultimate responsibility for the actions of his officers, who were only doing what they were told and — apparently — are pretty upset with it. And not only St. Pete cops. One person who identified himself/herself only as a Tampa Bay cop on the popular-with-police LEOaffairs.com website wrote, "Are you guys kidding me? You're cutting up the homeless people's tents? Destroying evidence of a supposed crime or just destroying their personal property? Did the chief or staff actually authorize this course of action??? Incredible!"
Harmon's tin ear about the problems with chronically low street cop staffing and his disappearance from the public scene whenever a tough crime problem arises had already caused great consternation among St. Pete's neighborhood leaders. On top of that was his weird performance at a civic meeting in December after he announced an end to the community policing program. Harmon addressed the group briefly but refused to take questions, insisting instead on talking one-on-one with anyone who had a gripe.
But now, the box cutters.
How can St. Petersburg residents live with a police chief quoted in the Times as saying:
"In hindsight we didn't discuss the actual property issue, and we probably should have taken that into consideration. I think the perception was not good of how and what we did. I hope there's no need to ever do that again."
Perception?? He hopes his officers won't have to violate people's rights again??? Outrageous.
Later in the week, as criticism reached a crescendo in letters to the editors and on television news reports, Harmon ordered a review of the matter. The officer charged with doing the review: Major Melanie Bevan, who (according to the Times report) came up with the idea in the first place.
Everyone OK with that? Sure.
If Baker is truthful in saying he didn't approve such actions, then those who did must go. Harmon and Bevan should be fired immediately. Others present at the meeting who gave their OK to the slashing should be suspended without pay for a period of time.
Then Baker should commit to a Clearwater-style approach to the homeless problem in his city, bringing together teams of specialists with his police and fire departments to craft tentative solutions to the immediate need. A long-term plan is in place, but the city can't wait for that to arrive.
By the end of the week, Baker had softened his message, according to the Times, and his friends and supporters said he was working behind the scenes for a more humane solution. Meanwhile, the cumulative impact of tent cities, homeless murders, the box-cutter debacle and Internet notoriety was summed up by a question on Fox 13: Is St. Pete the meanest city in the nation?
Even the normally Baker-friendly Times was piling on at the end of the week. Friday's story was headlined, "Fallout lands on Baker." And it looked like the story still had legs. On Fox 13's "The Edge" newscast, St. Petersburg City Councilman Jamie Bennett was asked if the problem was going away. He looked right in the camera and said, "No."