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.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Introducing the Chief's Chat

I talk a lot about how we practice community policing here in Gulfport. When I was appointed as chief, I made it clear that my department would police how our residents wanted us to police. Next month marks my five year anniversary in this position, and I think (I hope you think, at least) that I have been doing a pretty good job. I get out in the community and talk with people every day I am at work; I participate in quite a few community events; I volunteer for local service groups; and I generally feel that I have a good handle on the issues that are important to the people in this town.

That said, I think there is room for improvement. I want to open the door for even better communication. For quite some time now, I have been hosting a lunch with each of my first line supervisors. The idea is to give them each a regular forum where they can share ideas and concerns with me directly. This concept has proven to be very valuable in ensuring buy-in and commitment to our policing philosophy.

Starting next week, I’m going to apply a similar idea to communicating with the public. I’ll call it the chief’s chat, and my plan is to host a quarterly (or more frequent depending on the need) open table where folks can come in, sit down, and simply talk about whatever’s on their mind. If you want to chat about the crime trends in your neighborhood, or if you want to talk about the weather, I’ll be all ears.

The first chief’s chat will be on Sunday, February 1st at 9:00 at the McDonald’s located at 51st Street and Gulfport Blvd. I’ll show up a bit early, grab a cup of coffee, and reserve a few tables in the back. Anybody is welcome to come and share, and I will be there as long as it takes to hear what you have to say.

See you at the chief’s chat. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Body-Worn Cameras

Following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Missourri, media and public attention focused on conflicting witness statements about what happened during that tragic encounter. The lack of clarity has spurred many to press for an increase in the use of body-worn video cameras by police, and our profession is responding quickly and appropriately.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has published a model policy while the Police Executive Research Forum produced an analysis of the state of the technology. Both of these documents provide guidance as law enforcement chief administrators face decisions on if and how to deploy camera systems.

Here in Gulfport, we are ahead of the game, so to speak. Police officers have been using body-worn cameras for about five years. I initiated the program as a cheaper alternative to the expensive systems we had been installing in patrol cars. The body cameras cost about one fifth of what the in-car systems sell for. Primarily, they have been used by officers who are assigned vehicles that do not have in-car camera systems. We also issue them to school resource officers for the purpose of recording any physical interactions with students. So far, we have had some pretty good results, and I am not aware of any negative impacts on the officers or the people being recorded.

Our policy on the deployment and use of these camera systems was last updated in 2013. To be prudent, I have decided to put it up for review again, this time in consideration of the PERF and IACP publications, as well as input from the community we serve. To the latter, I recently attended a retreat with representatives from local law enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Christian League of Councils. The purpose of the meeting was to open an ongoing dialogue on how our communities might be best served by police use of field-recording technology.

While I support the goal of this group, I think it is also important to consider the input of the public we serve. To that end, I invite any and all to contact me with your ideas on this subject. Currently some of the most important decisions to make include the following:

  1. Should we require all on duty officers to wear a body camera, or should we continue leaving it an optional tool for them to use at their own discretion?
  2. Should we require officers with body cameras to record all official conduct, some specific types of conduct, or should they have discretion over what they record?
  3. Should we require officers to inform people when they are being recorded?

Each of these, of course, has pros and cons. A “record everything” policy, for example, could be extremely burdensome in terms of the workload associated with retrieving and storing the video. The storage costs would also become very expensive very quickly. Also, I’d hate to ask officers to focus on operating the camera when they’re dealing with potentially dangerous situations. We also have to consider the impact that such a policy might have on our ability to get confessions, or more importantly, victim statements. At this point, we just don’t know how people will react if they know that everything they say to a police officer will be recorded.

My plan is to have an updated policy in effect by the New Year. If you have any suggestions or comments, please let me know.  chief@gulfportpolice.com

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Check Out the Ink

For almost fifteen years, the Gulfport Police Department has maintained a policy forbidding officers from having exposed tattoos while in uniform. Starting today, that policy will change.

Under the new rules, tattoos are not allowed on the hands, neck or face, and any other exposed tattoos must be able to fit under a 3-inch by 5-inch card. Of course, inappropriate or offensive tattoos will be prohibited no matter where they are located or how small they are. Any questionable material will be reviewed by a panel that will include at least one Gulfport resident who is not a member of the police department.

Why the change? Why now? Quite simply, the community standards are changing, and we have to keep up. Tattoos are much more common than they were two decades ago, and their appearance in professional workplaces has become routine. A Tampa Tribune report published last year profiled tattoos among local law enforcement agencies. The report made it clear that the Gulfport policy was just not the norm for this time and location.

Gulfport officers with tattoos on forearms have been concealing them for years with all manner of coverups, which actually look more unprofessional than the tattoo. All the while, their colleagues working in neighboring agencies are working the same job without the additional restrictions. That sort of arrangement certainly does nothing to enhance morale.

We have also turned down plenty other otherwise-qualified candidates simply because they couldn’t meet our tattoo standard. I’m talking people with military experience and college education, turned away because of the ink on their arm. The pool of applicants is already small enough; we don’t need to help make it smaller.

As the personal appearance policy came up for routine review, I decided to take another look at tattoos, and after a thorough staff review, the new policy will go into effect this week. So, be on the lookout for the new ink out there. My guess is that our diverse community known for its live-and-let-live lifestyle will have no objections to the change. In fact, I’m betting we get some compliments. After all, tattoos are art.

Friday, August 8, 2014

On Volunteer Patrols

We have a neighbor here in Gulfport by the name of Al Santos who volunteers his time to patrol the streets looking for anything suspicious. Al rides a red scooter and wears an orange vest with the words “Citizen on Patrol” printed front and back. He covers about 15 miles a day driving around town, and his self-proclaimed mission is to “call police if I see anything worth reporting.” Al introduced himself to me by way of an e-mail to let me know what he was doing. My response: “thank you for your service!”

I have no objection to volunteer patrols, whether they be an individual effort like Al’s, or something more organized like the Guardian Angels organization. People have the right to move about on public property, and I see no reason to oppose anyone who is trying to make the community safer. In fact, I will even offer these folks information and support to help them provide the best service while keeping safe in the process. One common tip: you're not the police; do not intervene, report. 

This being the case, many question why GPD doesn’t have its own citizen patrol unit. With the recent resurgence of a crime watch program led by longtime resident, Ernie Stone, many have noted the conspicuous detachment of the Gulfport Police Department from programs of this nature. So, why don’t we run the crime watch? Why don’t we organize volunteer patrols? Why don’t we endorse or solicit such programs?

The answer is actually pretty simple. I believe our commitment to these kinds of activities should be all or none. If we do not have the resources to recruit, screen, train, equip, and supervise the people involved in crime watch and citizen patrols, then we have no business trying to run their programs. Even a little. The moment we affiliate ourselves with just a small portion of what these people do, the city could become completely responsible for all of their actions. Unless and until we are prepared to accept that responsibility, we cannot and should not get involved.

Absent the significant financial commitment required to properly run these programs, GPD will continue its long-standing practice of providing information and support to the independent volunteers like Al and Ernie while they exercise their right to do their own thing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

To Catch a Thief

When you’re awakened in the middle of the night by helicopter rotors and sirens accompanied by red & blue flashers and bright spotlights, the logical assumption is that something is up.

Exactly what that is, however, can be just about anything. It doesn’t always mean a murderer or rapist is on the loose.

Recently, Gulfport officers were asked to locate a man who was wanted by the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office for several counts of dealing in stolen property. When the officers found him, the suspect took off running, and the law enforcement machine went to work.

Since we share communications with the sheriff’s office, deputies were already monitoring the situation, and they responded immediately. In this densely-populated county with over twenty law enforcement agencies routinely working across jurisdictions, this is an everyday occurrence. Gulfport and PCSO patrol units set up a perimeter, and sheriff’s investigators requested air and K-9 support. For over an hour we searched; unfortunately, the suspect was able to evade capture. For the moment. He was apprehended a few days later under similar circumstances. A Gulfport officer spotted and recognized him, and with assistance from another agency (St. Petersburg PD this time), the suspect was apprehended by a K-9 while hiding under a house.

Is all this overkill for a thief? Is catching this kind of crook worth the expense and public inconvenience of saturating a neighborhood with a dozen or more officers and deputies, a couple of police dogs, and a helicopter? Well, you be the judge.

Consider that this man was wanted for 28 counts of dealing in stolen property. Each count is a second-degree felony punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. Consider that theft of property is Gulfport’s number one crime, has been for years, and is routinely among residents’ top complaints to police.

Some may think that such efforts should be reserved for violent offenders, but I’m the one who would be stuck explaining to the victims of the thefts and burglaries that we didn’t catch the criminal because we just didn’t try hard enough. That doesn’t sit well with me, but I don’t think there is a perfect answer. I see this particular case as a job well done, and I wouldn’t hesitate to put forth the same effort again. The best we can do is keep the resources available and leave it to the best judgment of our trained and experienced officers to make the right decisions on how and when to use them.

In the meantime, we’ll do our best to let the public know if there is ever a dangerous fugitive on the loose. We can send instant media alerts to news outlets, post messages on our Facebook page, and we invite residents to sign up for our new emergency alert system https://alertregistration.com/GulfPortFL/

Stay safe, and as always, your feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Monday, May 5, 2014

How Is Crime In My Neighborhood?

We often get calls from people wanting to know about crime in their neighborhood. This used to be a complicated question requiring our analyst to run a database query given a particular set of parameters, such as date range, geographic radius, crime type, etc. Even then, the results would be limited to data from Gulfport, which isn’t very helpful if you live near the border.

Well nowadays there is a much better way to get the information you want. Pinellas County has developed a web-based application that compiles crime information from most jurisdictions, including Gulfport and St. Petersburg. It works like this: every day, the system scans our records database and pulls information on dates, locations, and offense types. This data is then automatically plotted on a map of the county.

Users can access the system and run their own queries at any time. So if you want to know, for example, how many auto thefts there have been within a mile of your house in the last 30 days, just make a couple of clicks, and it will all be mapped for you.

This is extremely valuable information, but there are a couple of important caveats. While the system retrieves data daily, it does not update old records. So if an investigation has resulted in a change (a theft is discovered to have been a civil matter, for example) you may not have the most current or accurate classification. Additionally, it’s important to note that not all agencies classify their reports the same way. Database difference may make it appear as though one jurisdiction has lots of a particular offense while another has none. To minimize this effect, I recommend filtering each search to a limited number of offenses.

These hiccups aside, the crime viewer application is still the easiest way to get the most thorough results about crime in your neighborhood.

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.