This is the blog for Robert Vincent, Chief of Police for the Gulfport (Florida) Police Department. Please feel free to leave comments, but keep in mind that anything appearing on this page may be subject to retention and disclosure in accordance with Florida public records law.

Please keep your posts clean and respectful. Comments are subject to review, and I do not permit lewdness, obscenity, or personal attacks.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Proposed Gun Law is Dangerous

In the next couple of weeks, the Florida Senate will consider a bill (SB296 and HB209) that, as passed by the House, will allow unlicensed individuals to carry firearms during evacuation orders declared by the governor, or during emergencies declared by local officials.

If you support this bill on principle, I can understand that, but let me illustrate some scenarios for you that may change your mind.

Say, for example, a hurricane is approaching the Alabama/Florida border. The governor declares an emergency, and an evacuation is ordered in Escambia County. In response, a resident packs up and evacuates to his family's home in Gulfport. The way this bill is written, that person would be allowed to carry a concealed firearm in Gulfport for the duration of the emergency in the panhandle. Meanwhile, those who live here and who have not been subject to evacuation, would not be allowed to carry a gun.

Interestingly, the law would not only apply to state emergencies declared by the governor. The House version would extend the same privilege to those complying with orders issued by local officials. So if the mayor of Key West declares an emergency due to civil unrest, we could have Key West evacuees here in Gulfport lawfully carrying concealed firearms.

I haven't even mentioned the scariest thing. What if the emergency is here? Imagine if we have a riot in Pinellas County and the sheriff declares an emergency. At that moment, everyone in the entire county, even those in the company of the rioters (felons, etc. excluded of course), would be allowed to carry a concealed gun. Wow.

There is a reason we issue permits to people before they can carry concealed firearms. We check backgrounds, get fingerprints and photos, and ensure the people understand the laws and demonstrate proficiency with their weapons. Eliminating these safeguards, particularly in times of civil unrest, is a dangerous way to go.

I support the right of the people to keep and bear arms, but I think the current laws are sufficient. As it stands now, everyone already has the right to transport guns in their cars or carry them on their own private property, for example.

At the very least, the Senate has to address some important issues before it agrees to pass this bill. We need to be clear on the time and geographic limits that apply to evacuations, and we need to exclude the provision that applies to riots and affrays. I encourage you to contact your senator (it's Jeff Brandes for Gulfport residents) and ask him or her to insist on reasonable changes to this bill before approving its passage as law.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What's In a Cop?

Law enforcement officers are constantly faced with temptations as well as the means to abuse their authority. That is an unfortunate reality that is simply inherent in our line of work. To help prevent misconduct, we go to great lengths on the front end to make sure we’re picking the best people for the job. In 2013, the Gulfport Police Department processed 52 applications to fill just three police officer positions.

Minimum Qualifications
Applicants must be at least 21 years old and have completed the state law enforcement certification process, which includes a 770-hour basic recruit academy and passing a standardized test. In addition, applicants must have completed at least 60 college credits or a three-year active duty military enlistment. We only accept applications from individuals who meet these minimum standards. From there, the process only gets tougher.

Physical Abilities Test
To make sure our new recruits are up to the physical demands of the job, we run them through a timed test, which consists of a 440 yard run, an obstacle course, and dragging a 150-pound dummy for 100 feet. Applicants who cannot pass the PAT do not continue with the screening process.

Oral Board
Police work requires the ability to demonstrate exceptional communication skills under high stress conditions. So we put our applicants to the test. We assemble a group of three experienced, sworn supervisors who sit as a panel to interview each applicant. They ask scenario-based questions and evaluate applicants on their ability to present their answers effectively. The oral board rating scores are then considered later in the process when comparing multiple, qualified applicants.

Background Investigation
We ask each applicant to complete a ten-page personal history questionnaire. This document covers residency, work history, undetected criminal activity, drug use, military service, etc.  We then verify everything in the document via a lengthy investigation conducted by a sworn, experienced detective. The investigation will include interviews with the applicant’s neighbors, review of employment and military records, review of education records, database inquiries to confirm residential and employment history, police record checks, and a fingerprint criminal history check.

If a background investigation reveals no disqualifying conduct, the next step is a polygraph test. The examiner will review all facets of the applicant’s background in an effort to uncover anything that may have been missed to this point. In addition, the examiner will note any discrepancies which could indicate an effort to be misleading. Dishonesty is always a disqualifier.

Chief’s Interview
Nobody wears a Gulfport police badge without meeting with me first. I want the opportunity to ensure that each recruit understands our policing philosophy and is somebody I want to represent me, personally. A list of standardized questions is asked of each applicant in this interview. If they do well, I’ll extend an offer of employment, conditional upon passing the next two steps.

Psychological Evaluation
We employ the services of a clinical psychologist with over fifteen years’ experience. The doctor uses a standardized assessment instrument, and then he personally interviews each candidate. We receive a detailed, confidential report, along with a rating indicating the candidate’s psychological fitness for duty. If the rating is unacceptable, the job offer is rescinded.

Medical Evaluation
This final step is completed by a physician experienced in occupational health. The candidate is evaluated to ensure he or she has no medical issues that would interfere with the ability to perform essential functions of the job. A drug screen is included in this evaluation.

Field Training Program
If they get through all of the above steps, the candidate gets to put on a badge and is now a Gulfport police officer. However, there is still a long way to go. As a part of the one-year probationary period, new recruits must complete a vigorous, 16-week, on-the-job training program. During this time, an experienced officer observes and evaluates the recruit every moment of every day. Those who perform well in this program will achieve their goal of becoming “solo” officers, but close evaluation continues for another eight months until the probation period ends and the new officer is no longer a rookie.

As you can see, it takes a lot to become a police officer in Gulfport, but we are proud of that fact. This is a lengthy and expensive process, for sure, but I think the people of Gulfport deserve the best for their money. I will continue to do my best to ensure they get it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Traffic Stop from the Cop's Perspective

Several times a day our officers initiate traffic stops on motorists. Most frequently, these encounters are in connection with minor traffic violations, so it is understandable that motorists often think such stops are routine for the officers. The fact is, however, that any traffic stop can be hazardous-or even deadly- to an officer. Despite improvements in technology, officers still have no way of knowing who is in the car they've just stopped. Often times the person being pulled over for a simple traffic violation has committed an offense the officer knows nothing about, or the person is wanted, has just left the scene of a crime, or has something to hide from the police. The officer approaching the car does not know the answers to any of these questions until he or she can make inquiries.

A person being pulled over by the police should first understand that the officer is participating in what he or she regards as potentially a life-threatening action. In the annual listings of circumstances leading to the death of on-duty police officers in this country, traffic stops are always in the lead. We train officers to be especially careful and cautious during car stops.

Motorists who have been stopped often comment on how the officer appeared threatening to them. Officers approach slowly and deliberately and look closely in the interior of the car, including the back seat. When someone opens the glove box to retrieve a vehicle registration, the officer cranes his neck to the point where he almost has his head inside the car window. To the motorists, this may seem intrusive or disrespectful, but to the officer it is paramount that he can see everyone’s hands and be alert to any threat.

All of these actions are intentional; officers train intensively to do these things the same way, every single time, to approach a car cautiously and deliberately, and to look for ‘furtive movement’ by the vehicle occupants. The driver could be trying to hide something under the front seat (beer?, drugs?, gun?). Observing the passenger compartment and carefully watching the removal of something from the glove box or console is done for the purpose of personal safety and for detecting the presence of possible contraband.

So what does the honest citizen do to minimize the officer's concerns? First, please try to understand why the officer is taking these precautions. There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop. Officers are taught that any traffic stop could very well be the last traffic stop.  When you sense this caution or tension in the officer, please understand that he or she does not usually know who or what to expect. Once the officer learns your identity, confirms the vehicle registration, and sees no evidence of criminal behavior on your part, you will probably see the officer noticeably relax his or her approach.

You should also avoid getting out of the car immediately after being stopped and approaching the officer while he or she is still in the vehicle. Officers are cautioned about being ‘trapped’ in their own vehicle. This behavior also raises suspicion in the officer's mind that there is something, or somebody, in the car that the you don’t want the officer to see. Remain in the car and let the officer approach you; keep your hands plainly visible; and avoid those ‘furtive movements.’

When a police officer makes initial contact, permit him or her to speak and act first. The officer will ask for your driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. These are lawful requirements of you, but more importantly, it helps the officer determine that you are not a car thief and you are not driving with a suspended license.

Once these essential preliminaries are taken care of, it is appropriate for you and the officer to discuss why you were stopped. It may be a traffic violation or it may be that your car matches the description of one the police are looking for regarding an incident that has occurred. If this is the case, please understand that we are often dealing with only partial descriptions, that those who commit crimes do switch tags on cars, and criminals actually lie to police officers.

The suspected traffic violator will sometimes disagree with the officer's observation. Police officers are similar to baseball umpires in that they will listen to the other side of a dispute. Convincing arguments are usually characterized by facts and logic, not emotion, threat, or volume. In fact, threats and aggressive emotions can present a host of other issues that must be addressed.

Traffic citations are not pronouncements of guilt. Police officers, being human, make errors and so do citizens. Courts of law have been created to impartially hear complaints of disputed tickets, that court is the proper place to argue your case, not the scene of the incident. Police officers readily accept the fact that their judgments are subject to question and review by competent authority. However, when they are on the side of the road, their first focus will always be for officer safety.

Thank you for helping us do our job. If you ever feel you have been the subject of unlawful profiling or harassment, please contact any police supervisor to register a complaint.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Golf Carts Revisited

The City Council has agreed to have another discussion on whether to allow golf carts to operate on public roadways. I will be making a brief presentation based on some documents that I have prepared.

Essentially, my position is that I am professionally opposed to the operation of golf carts on municipal roadways for the following reasons:

  1. The closing speed between golf carts and other traffic will be too fast. The 85th percentile speed on many of our roads is approximately 30 mph, with many vehicles travelling near 35 mph. The maximum speed for a golf cart is 20 mph, with many only capable of reaching 15 mph. That leaves a potential closing speed of at least 10 mph and as much as 20 mph.
  2. Golf carts do not have safety features equivalent to those in motor vehicles. With an open body, studies from the US Consumer Products Safety Commission, University of Alabama, and others have shown an increased risk of passenger ejection. The vehicles typically do not offer shoulder restraints, and unless required by local ordinance, hip restraints are not even standard. There are also no head restraints to protect against whiplash, nor are there airbags as on most cars today.
  3. Slow moving carts create a condition more dangerous than bicycles or scooters because they occupy more of the travel lane. A motor vehicle operator can take an evasive maneuver to pass a bicycle or scooter even with the presence of oncoming traffic. This is not possible upon approaching a golf cart. The only option would be braking, and if there is insufficient stopping distance, a collision will occur.
  4. We do not possess the qualification to declare any of our roadways safe for the operation of golf carts. By doing so, we accept a responsibility and risk previously relegated to the state. This significant risk to all of our citizens is not outweighed by the minor benefit to a few of our citizens who are simply seeking a way to avoid the cost and inconvenience of the current state registration process for low speed vehicles.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

I started working for the Gulfport Police Department twenty years ago. Almost twenty years before that, my father used to bring me down to the beach on the weekends so I could climb on the monkey bars at the playground. In that nearly forty years, a lot has changed in this town, most of it for the better. In other areas, progress seems a bit slow. Look at 49th Street.

Four lanes of asphalt, no more than 100 feet wide, separate the City of Gulfport from the Greater Childs Park Area (GCPA) of St. Petersburg, which includes all of the Childs Park neighborhood as well as portions of three others (Oak Park, Twin Brooks, and Perry Bayview). As long as I can remember, this border road has not only served as a political boundary; it has represented a divide between two very different cultures. Obviously the demographic variances contribute to this image. Gulfport is and has historically been comprised of a majority white population, while the GCPA is and has been predominantly African-American. So 49th Street separates a white neighborhood from a black neighborhood, but there’s much more to the picture than racial differences.

Let’s take a look at some numbers that actually matter. Census tracts 208.00 and 201.01 encompass the St. Petersburg neighborhoods directly east of Gulfport—essentially the GCPA. Combined, these two tracts have a population and land area that is similar to that of Gulfport. The overall crime rate, however, is more than twice that of our town, and the violent crime rate is over five times higher than Gulfport’s (Table 1). These are rates that far exceed the averages for the City of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, and the state of Florida. There is absolutely no question that the GCPA is a high-crime neighborhood; let’s just call that a given.

The problem is, all of this crime is literally happening right across the street. We work hard and do a great job of keeping crime rates low within Gulfport’s municipal borders, but that’s not much consolation to those who have to live and work on that particular border. While they may not be immediate victims of actual crimes, Gulfport residents who live near the GCPA experience the indirect impacts of that crime on a daily basis. This is why I repeatedly make the claim that we in Gulfport do not have a crime problem on 49th Street; we have a problem resulting from the perception of the crime occurring next door.

The question: how much can we do about it? I think our officers do an outstanding job considering the mere ribbon of pavement between us and the aforementioned high-crime neighborhood. We do what we do, how we do it because our constituents demand it. What we all have to realize and accept, however, is that what happens across the street is not up to us. The people who live in the GCPA are the ones who get to decide how their neighborhood is policed. They are the ones who set the enforcement priorities and dictate them to their representatives. We have no more right to tell them to tighten things up than they have to ask us to lighten up (believe me, they’ve asked).

The bottom line is this: any change to the crime rate in the GCPA must be driven by those who live there. If they don’t want things to change, then we in Gulfport will not have much of an impact.

Please don’t get the impression that St. Petersburg is ignoring this area. I want to point out that there have been some pretty impressive reductions in the GCPA crime rate since the implementation of a Strategic Planning Initiative under Mayor Baker’s administration in 2007. Overall crime has dropped 34% in this area over the past four years, while it has essentially remained static in Gulfport. While this is movement in the right direction, I intend work to encourage the new mayor and new police chief to take more proactive steps to further reduce violent crime in this area. When our residents are affected, our voice needs to be heard.

For our part, Gulfport has undertaken a few projects and programs to help improve the perception as well. New LED street lighting will be installed in January, making the roadway more visible at night. We’ve improved the signage at our office on 49th Street, making if more clear that it is home to the office of an actual police officer, and we’re in the process of installing high-visibility surveillance cameras on that building as well. We also added a full-time officer to handle recruiting and screening, which frees up our Community Resource Officer, Zach Mills, to spend more of his time focusing on policing the 49th Street area.

Of course, we won’t be able to measure the effect of any of these changes until this time next year. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to some positive changes in both perception and reality. Happy New Year everyone!

Table 1—UCR Part 1 Crimes, City of Gulfport vs. Census Tracts 208.00 and 201.01 combined

Monday, September 23, 2013

I've Been Robbed, Sort Of.

I ran into a man the other day who told me he’d been robbed. Now, since we’ve been averaging only about one robbery per month lately, I usually keep on top of them. I wasn’t familiar with this particular robbery, so I pressed for details. Turns out, the man was not robbed; he was the victim of a burglary. Well, sort of—the weed eater was taken from his truck.

Very confusing, I know. Unfortunately, we’re at the whim of much larger bureaucracies when it comes to reporting and classifying criminal activity in Gulfport. The state legislature has one set of definitions—the ones we use to actually charge and prosecute people; the federal government has its own, and they’re entirely different. Let me give you a couple of examples to help explain.

When somebody points a gun at you and steals your wallet, that’s a robbery no matter how you look at it. Both state and federal definitions call it the same thing; taking property by use of violence is a robbery. If the criminal instead snatches your purse off your arm and runs away, no violence involved, now things get confusing. That’s a robbery under Florida law, but most likely not under the federal rules.

The kid who jimmies your back door and breaks into your house to steal the TV commits a burglary under both definitions. Forcing entry into a residence to commit theft is always a burglary, but there are plenty of cases where sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

Under Florida law, burglary does not require forced entry. And it applies to vehicles just the same. Under federal law, there is no such thing as burglary to a vehicle. So when somebody opens your unlocked car and takes the change out of the cup holder, that’s a burglary in Florida, but it’s just a theft according to the feds.

To make matters even more confusing, the state legislature added something called “curtilage” to their burglary statute. This means that if you steal a bicycle from under a covered porch, for example, it’s a burglary. The FBI, of course, does not agree; to them it’s just theft.

To keep the public informed, we participate in the Pinellas Crime Viewer program, which is a very cool, interactive map that is free and open to the public (gis.pinellascounty.org/crimeviewer). Our offense data is uploaded daily to this website, and the stats are based on crimes as they are defined under state, not federal law. This is the source that local news outlets use to report crime, so this is what most people see on a regular basis.

What makes things look strange, however, is that we also have to produce reports twice per year for the FBI. These reports are intended to be uniform throughout the nation so that researchers can make reasonably-accurate comparisons. Of course, these reports are based on federal crime definitions. This explains why you might read the local paper every week and see eight to ten burglaries, yet our annual report shows less than 200.

Via the accreditation process, GPD reporting procedures are subject to a thorough review by outside experts once every three years. The FBI, State Attorney’s Office, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement also have oversight authority over this process. Each of those entities can at any time and without notice review our records to ensure we are following the rules. Furthermore, all records that are not legally exempt are also subject to public review. Any person can review our reports and publicly challenge the findings.

So when the data looks a bit strange and doesn’t seem to jive, I promise you there is no nefarious intent, just bureaucracy at its finest.