Chuck Harmon was already scheduled to retire in 2015, so his announcement today that he is stepping down in just a few months came as a bit of a surprise. It also appears that he broke the news to Mark Puente at the Tampa Bay Times before informing his boss, Mayor Bill Foster.
In any event, today's announcement marks the beginning of the end of the career of a chief who has led St. Petersburg's Police Department for nearly 12 years, beginning in December of 2001 when he was appointed by Rick Baker.
A statement released by the city said that "after 31 years of service with the St. Petersburg Police Department, Chief Harmon says that he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Lori, and his children."
Rick Kriseman, who is challenging Mayor Foster in November, said in a statement that the chief served the city honorably and he wishes the 53 year old the best of luck in the future. Kriseman also said this is yet another high-level departure from the Foster administration, and he asked the mayor to hold off on selecting Harmon's replacement until after the Nov. 5 election.
"It's time for stronger leadership in City Hall," Kriseman said. "I'm asking Mr. Foster to keep me informed about any decisions related to this period of transition. I believe no final decision on the next chief should be made until after the November election. The next mayor should select the next police chief."
Kriseman has been critical of Harmon during the campaign, saying there needs to be a restructuring of the police department. At an early debate he said, "It's one thing for the police to require respect from the community, but their needs to be respect going back to our community, and I think we need to take a look at how we are running our police department," referring to issues like the controversial car chase policy.
Kriseman has also been critical of Harmon's handling of community policing, which the chief changed a number of years ago. Kathleen Ford also hammered Harmon for no longer assigning officers to particular neighborhoods.
But Mayor Foster has said that the critics don't know what they are talking about.
Harmon can be praised for helping reduce the city's crime rate; last year it dropped another 4 percent.
Reaction to Harmon's retirement plans were mixed, based on the comments we received from two members of Council.
City Council Chair Karl Nurse said Harmon served honorably, and he told CL, "I am hopeful that St. Petersburg will take the opportunity to select a chief of police who both embraces innovation and an integration of policing as a critical part of turning around many of our neighborhoods."
But Wengay Newton, who would occasionally get into intense verbal exchanges with Harmon when he would address City Council, said that he hopes the new chief has some "out of the box thinking."
"I'm just hopeful that whoever comes in after him will embrace police substations in certain neighborhoods, gun buyback programs, things like that that keep the community safe. He didn't embrace those type of things," Newton said.
Nurse added, "Virtually all the large federal grants like Choice Neighborhoods and Promise Neighborhoods require innovative and engaged police departments. City administration has not even applied for these grants in recent years. Tampa received a $30 million Choice grant this year."
Harmon was scheduled to retire by May 2015 because of the state's deferred retirement program. The press release from City Hall said his last day as chief will be Jan. 6, 2014, "barring any unforeseen circumstances." He has served 31 years total in the police department.