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, December 30, 2010

Police Pensions--The Good and the Bad

Since the city council voted last week on first reading to adopt an improvement to the police pension benefits, I thought it would be appropriate to elaborate in the blog. Essentially, the proposed change would use state funds to increase the "multiplier" from 2.75 to 2.88, which would result in higher benefit payouts to retirees. This higher multiplier would be dependent upon continued receipt of state funds; if they are reduced or eliminated in the future, the multiplier could revert back to where it is now.

Police pensions have recently become a subject of great scrutiny, with many voters urging their legislators to take steps to reduce public funding for these programs. In response, the legislature has asked for input from the stakeholders. The Florida Chiefs of Police Association has formed a committee to develop a position statement on the subject, and I have been selected to serve on this committee. Before I make any official recommendations, I would love to hear your ideas as well.

So far, here are some of the things I will be taking into consideration:
  1. The majority of police pensions are defined-benefit programs, which means the retirement benefit is pre-determined. These types of programs can be very successful when investments are good. Unfortunately, public funds must be used to subsidize the programs if investment income is insufficient to pay out benefits.
  2. Many police pension programs do not require employees to contribute to the plan. Most notable among these is the Florida Retirement System (FRS), which seems to be the target of most of the controversy in this state. By the way, Gulfport officers are part of a completely independent system which has nothing to do with FRS. Gulfport officers contribute eight percent of their salary to their pension fund.
  3. Typical retirement for police officers can come much sooner than in other professions. In Gulfport, for example, officers can retire at age 52 if they have at least 25 years of service. They are then guaranteed benefit payments for the rest of their lives. With life expectancies getting higher, retired officers can easily spend more time collecting retirement benefits than they spent working.
  4. While all these things certainly cost money, maybe there are some valid reasons. I certainly don't want to sound like I am demeaning other professions, but law enforcement is very stressful, physically-demanding, and highly-dangerous work. I think to some degree, the enhanced retirement benefits are recognized as a reward for officers who have served under such conditions.
  5. Market factors usually determine pay and benefits in any business, and ours is no different. If we reduce the benefit package, that will certainly have an effect on who we are able to recruit. I foresee that we will have to reduce the standards in order to maintain the number of officers. Reducing the standards is the last thing I want to do.
Our committee meets on January 9th. If you have any comments or suggestions, please let me know.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is it appropriate to give gifts to police officers?

The Thin Blue Line. You may have seen this image of a dark field with a blue line running through the middle.

What you may not know is exactly what it portrays. Some have misconveyed it as a symbol of elitism, suggesting that police officers are part of a select group that is somehow above the masses. In actuality, it means something very different. Essentially, it embodies the notion that police serve as the thin line which separates order from chaos. While that may seem a bit dramatized, the truth is that police officers bear an incredible responsibility when it comes to maintaining stability in our society. We are the ones people turn to when they feel they have been mistreated, and they expect us to deliver an unbiased response.

Much of this responsibility lies in the perception that people have of police. In order to be effective arbiters of justice, we must be seen as being neutral and fair. The only way we can uphold that image is to ensure that our service is owed to no individual person, business, or special interest. Any conduct that could undermine that perception of neutrality should be prohibited or discouraged at the very least.

This is what brings us to gifts. It may seem completely innocent to offer a small token of appreciation to a police officer. After all, it's not as though you'd be paying him a bribe in return for a favor. Unfortunately, that is exactly how it can be perceived. Take, for example, the convenience store that serves discounted beverages to on-duty officers. No big deal, right? Well, it might be a very big deal if you're the person who calls police when the store short-changes you.

Knowing the officer receives a "gift" from the store could eliminate the perception of neutrality and fairness that is so critical. After all, without faith in the officer's independence, why would people call the police in the first place? And when people become uncomfortable calling the police, that is a sign of a corrupt society.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not saying that my police officers are such scoundrels that they would be influenced to act improperly because they receive a discount on a drink. On the contrary, I believe each and every one of them to be well above such conduct under any circumstances. Unfortunately, it's not my opinion that matters. As soon as one person is given reason to believe otherwise, we're moving in the wrong direction.

So it is with this in mind that I have a policy prohibiting police employees from accepting gifts in their official capacity. If they turn you down, please don't think them rude; they are only following my rules. If you would like to recognize their service, a much more appropriate contribution would be a letter of appreciation that can be placed in their personnel files.

Do you agree or disagree with my policy? I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Community Survey Results

When I was appointed in February, I said that I wanted to change the focus of the police department. My direction has been that we will police Gulfport the way the people want it to be policed. I recognized early on that an important step in this process would be to survey our customers to get a better idea of their perceptions and expectations.

In order to ensure that this survey would be statistically valid, I enlisted the assistance of the University of South Florida’s Department of Criminology. Dr. Max Bromley assigned two doctoral students to the project, and they have been on our team from the beginning. Jon Maskaly and Chris Donner helped develop the questions, design a data-collection instrument, and they conducted statistical analysis of the results. Without their help, this project would have taken much longer and would have required more of our own resources.

On September 30, 2010, I received the final report from USF. Since then, I have reviewed the data and the analysis with my staff. We have identified four areas where we feel we can work to specifically address the concerns indicated in the survey results.

  1. Patrol Zone Re-Mapping
Survey results showed that residents in the existing patrol zone #4 were least likely to report feeling safer over the past year. The current boundaries of this patrol zone are Tangerine Avenue on the north, 55th Street on the west, Boca Ciega Bay on the south, and St. Petersburg   on the east. In contrast, those in zone #3 (essentially Town Shores and Pasadena Yacht & Country Club) were most likely to report feeling safer.

This contrast indicates the possibility that police resources may be inappropriately deployed. The goal is to set up patrol zones in such a way that each has roughly the same workload (combination of crime, calls for service, commercial contacts, traffic issues, etc). I have directed the operations commander to task our crime analyst with conducting a review of this information with the goal of revising the zone boundaries to reflect changes that may have occurred since the last such re-map over ten years ago.

My initial speculation is that we will end up with one zone covering the entire western portion of the city, while the eastern portion is divided fairly evenly into the other three zones. This project should be completed by the end of the year, and any changes will be put in place effective January 1st.

  1. Increase Community Activities
Responses in various sections of the survey indicate a desire to see more police involvement in crime prevention and neighborhood watch programs. Currently, we make these programs available to all residents on a regular basis, but historical participation has been low. This tells us that, while people want these things, they do not necessarily want to go out of their way to get involved.

We believe that the solution lies in making another fundamental change. Rather than simply making these programs available, we will instead focus on bringing them to the communities. In 2011, I intend to begin a community activity program where we will help set up neighborhood get-togethers with a crime-prevention theme. We will hold one event per quarter, alternating patrol zones. Each of the four patrol sergeants will be responsible for making the necessary arrangements for these functions. Initially, these events will take the form of block parties designed to simply increase familiarity among neighbors.

  1. Improve Perception of Investigative Function
Although overall satisfaction was very high, respondents indicated less perceived satisfaction with detectives than with other components of the police department. While this is not to say there is a problem (the numbers are still very good), we want to make some changes to try to improve things.

Comments on this subject focused primarily on the lack of information about investigative efforts on cases reported to police. We believe the primary culprit for this is the “early case closure” letter that is sent to victims of cases that do not meet established solvability factors. In its current form, the letter attempts to explain that the investigation is put on hold because there are no leads.

We believe that a modification is in order—one that focuses on the basic tenets of customer service: tell them what you CAN do, not what you can’t do. The revised letter will now contain language that explains the following:
  • This case has been received by and is now assigned to the investigative services section.
  • Experts are in the process of reviewing any and all forensic evidence that was collected.
  • Analysts are now and will continue to search a multitude of databases for any possible links to reported stolen property.
  • We will contact you with any updates, but please feel free to contact us with questions in the mean time.
  • Although the case status will officially be “suspended,” there will be no language in the letter that reflects this.

  1. Crime Prevention Efforts at Boca Ciega High School
Several respondents indicated their concern about safety and crime at Boca Ciega High School.  To address this, I will be directing the school resource officers to develop a comprehensive student crime prevention program. Such a program will be planned and implemented in conjunction with the school administration, most likely using guidelines already established by Youth Crime Watch of America (http://www.ycwa.org/).

Future Surveys

It is our understanding that the most effective surveys are those that can measure change. In order to know if our efforts are being put to the best use, we believe it is important to conduct this type of survey on a regular basis. Costs for printing, mailing, and data entry are approximately $8,000. If the results help us to more efficiently deploy our resources, the cost for an annual survey is well worth it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Public Surveillance Cameras?

The planned replacement of a defective camera at the city marina appears to have stirred some residents to action on a subject that has been a smoldering hot topic for some time now. The idea of placing surveillance cameras on public rights of way was proposed several years ago in Gulfport, but it has never had the support necessary to get off the ground. What's the deal?

First off, this is a very controversial subject. Public opinion is split on the idea, but I think it's fair to say that a lot of people are opposed to the idea of having the government watch their every move as they go about their business on public streets and sidewalks. This is something very different than cameras placed for the security of a specific facility. People understand and even expect facilities to be under surveillance, but American society has not yet completely accepted the idea of being watched while on public land.

The other reason this is potentially controversial in Gulfport has to do with the cultural differences between ours and neighboring communities. Most supporters have suggested that cameras be placed along 49th Street because of its perceived higher crime. I just hate to think of the negative impact that might have on the residents of the Child's Park neighborhood (which has a predominately minority population) who sometimes express a distrust of the Gulfport authorities. Our community policing efforts absolutey require the support of that community, and I am hesitant to embark on any projects which might undermine their support.

In spite of these controversial issues, I am not opposed to the use of public surveillance cameras. I know they can be very valuable in detecting, preventing, and investigating crimes and disorder problems. I would, however, demand that public input, as well as input from neighboring communities, be included in any policy development and decisions on where cameras are to be placed.

Of course, controversy is not the only obstacle. Cost is another issue entirely. An effective system requires high-resolution, low-light cameras that are weather-proof and capable of remote pan, tilt, and zoom. It requires wireless connectivity so that the video feeds can be viewed by staff members (or the public) from the Internet. It requires security features to keep the cameras from being stolen or vandalized. And finally, it requires trained and dedicated people to monitor the video feeds. All things considered, even a basic system could run into six figures, which is money we just do not have.

Some ask why it is necessary to monitor the live video. The truth is that latent camera footage is not as valuable as many think. Very often, we have a clear video of a crime that has occurred at some facility or other, but we have no clue as to the identity of the suspect. Sure, this evidence is valuable if we are able to identify a perpetrator through other means, but the video alone is not worth much. The true value in a surveillance system is the ability to monitor it live and send officers to intervene when suspicious activity is observed.

Live monitoring is exactly how these systems have been successful in cities such as London and even Orlando. Injured officers on light duty watch the monitors from over a hundred cameras deployed in Orlando, and they dispatch on-duty officers whenever they see something that looks out of place. Unfortunately, Gulfport only has people in such a capacity on a sporadic basis. In order to be effective at monitoring a surveillance system, we would have to employ a crew specifically for that purpose.

So, the bottom line. . .I would love to have a public video surveillance system in Gulfport, but only if our residents and those of our neighboring cities support the concept and the considerable financial commitment that goes along with it. If this is something you are passionate about, get in touch with me and we will see what we can do about finding that support. Likewise, if you are against this idea, I'd love to hear your concerns.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Community Policing-Making the Most of COPS Grant

You may have heard by now that the U.S. Department of Justice office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) awarded Gulfport a grant to fund one police officer position for three years. What may not have trickled out are the details on exactly how that police officer will be employed.

Conditions of the grant require that the agency dedicate the equivalent of one full time officer to working on specific, community-policing projects. While this may seem simple enough, the question on many minds is--what exactly is community policing?

First of all, this is not a new idea--Wyatt Earp practiced a form of community policing when he enforced the "no firearms" ordinance in the city of Tombstone. Essentially, anything that combines the efforts of the police with the collective desires and resources of the community they serve is community policing. The idea is based on economics, really; it is the answer to the question: "what is the most efficient way to keep the neighborhood safe?"

Actually, it may be easier to define community policing by describing what it is not. The most common misconception is that the police will take care of everything. Many expect that their responsibility is limited to reporting violations they personally observe, and that once these violations are reported, the police will handle it from there. The truth is, if everything is left up to the police, then very little is going to be accomplished. No law enforcement agency has the resources that would be required to actively pursue every complaint, crime, and incident through to resolution. In fact, police absolutely require the active participation of community members to assist in identifying and addressing problems.

It may seem at first that this is an attempt to brush aside responsibility, but the reality is that by using true community policing techniques, we can accomplish a great deal with as little expense as possible. Consider this example: a neighborhood experiences several vehicle burglaries. Primarily, the target vehicles were left unlocked and parked on a dark part of the street. In response, I could assign several officers to randomly patrol the neighborhood looking for suspicious persons, or I could assign one officer to enlist the support of the entire community. The one officer could engage the media and crime watch groups to alert residents and recommend that vehicles be locked and parked in well-lit driveways when possible. The one officer could seek out crime prevention tools from private businesses. The one officer could coordinate with the investigations unit to ensure that all cases are reviewed together rather than individually. The one officer could distribute photos of known auto burglars to local residents and businesses. The one officer could identify informal community leaders to help engage others in the neighborhood to become more involved in crime prevention efforts.

In the end, the work done by the one officer would likely have a greater impact on resolving the problem. At the same time, it would have used one-third of the resources as compared to simply assigning officers to do extra patrol. More. . . for less.

Of course, in order for this kind of work to be productive, the officers responsible must take steps to identify those in the community who are able and likely to help. They need to know and become familiar with business owners, church leaders, non-profit resources, community organizations, activist residents, government services, and any other entity that could potentially provide assistance when a problem arises. Seeking out and developing partnerships with these resources is the key to community policing. Through coordinating their collective knowledge and abilities, one police officer can do what would otherwise require three or four.

How is this all related to our COPS grant? Well, I intend to employ this one police officer in a capacity where he or she will be responsible for these kinds of community-policing efforts in what many consider to be our highest crime neighborhood--the 49th Street redevelopment area. The officer assigned to this position will focus almost exclusively on establishing and maintaining relationships with business and community leaders for the purpose of identifying and resolving crime and disorder problems. His or her work will supplement, not replace, that of the officers already assigned to this patrol zone, and I have high hopes that their combined efforts will go a long way toward changing opinions about this particular neighborhood.

The new community resource officer should be on the job by the new year. I will be making a selection and announcing the decision within the next few weeks. The officer assigned will report to Sergeant Josh Stone, who is in charge of our special enforcement team. While the primary responsibility will be the 49th Street redevelopment area, the community resource officer will also be available to help officers in other patrol zones to coordinate their own community policing activities. This will be a resource for the entire city.

Check back for updates on this topic, and as always, I welcome your input.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Golf Carts and Public Safety

Last week, I was asked to give a presentation to the city council regarding the feasibility of allowing golf carts to operate legally on Gulfport roadways. In the days leading up to that workshop session, many asked for my opinion on the issue, and indeed I expressed some concerns. Since my presentation, I have discovered that some may consider me an obstacle to the legalization of golf carts in Gulfport.

Please let me take a moment to clarify my position on this touchy subject.

I am not opposed to the safe operation of these vehicles on our roadways. My concern is that nobody has any way to determine what is or is not safe. There are no established standards, and absent those standards, the city puts itself at risk by attempting to create its own.

The staus quo is that golf carts are illegal. Golf carts, which are designed for operation on golf courses at speeds less than 20 miles per hour, may not be driven on public roadways. There is a reason for this; the legislature recognizes that they are inherently unsafe, specifying that if cities want to make an exception to the rule, they do so at their own risk. The law gives municipal governments the authority to allow these vehicles to be operated on city roads, but only after making a determination that those roads are safe in consideration of the speed, volume, and character of traffic. Unfortunately, neither the federal or state departments of transportation have published criteria for what constitutes safe speed, volume, or character. This means that the city is responsible for establishing those definitions, and I simply do not believe our staff is qualified to do so. The DOT employs traffic engineers and analysts who develop such policies based on extensive research and use of specialized equipment and software. Local governments rely on their expertise because we do not have access to those kinds of resources.

If we do proceed with developing our own standards, the logical next step is to consider what others have done. Several other cities and neighborhoods have passed ordinances allowing golf cart operation on roadways. I have looked at many of these, and I have seen some trends in what they consider safe. Some common traits:

1. Speed limits do not exceed 30 mph
2. Roadways are no more than two lanes
3. Residential areas only

Applying these standards to Gulfport would eliminate 49th Street north of 23rd Avenue, all of Gulfport Blvd., and some portions of Beach Blvd. In fact, if Pinellas County holds fast to its own rules, they would actually prohibit golf cart operation on county roads within the city of Gulfport, thereby eliminating 58th Street as well. Curiously, none of the other cities seem to have addressed traffic volume in their standards. Considering the amount of traffic, I think it would be prudent to exclude 15th Avenue, and maybe even 11th Avenue from the list of permitted roads.

What we end up with is a city divided into exclusion zones, if you will. Unless we allow carts to cross roadways they may not otherwise drive upon, the vehicles would never be allowed to leave their home neighborhoods. If we do allow crossings, we will have to make some determinations as to where it is safe to cross these streets. Again, there are no established standards.

Aside from the issue of deciding which streets to use, we also have to consider a multitude of other questions. Do we require licensed drivers, insurance, safety equipment, electric motors only, etc? Each of these would have to be addressed in the city ordinance, and they would all be subject to regulation by the police department.

Of note in consideration of this subject is the fact that modified golf carts are already legal on Gulfport roads. Fitted with certain safety equipment, golf carts may be legally registered as low-speed vehicles, which means they can be driven by licensed drivers on public streets with speed limits up to 35 miles per hour. Because these vehicles are certified by their manufacturer and recognized by the state to be safe for public operation, the city assumes no risk or responsibility for their use. The down side, of course, is that they cost more money to purchase and maintain.

In the end, the decision is up to the elected officials. My job is simply to give them as much information as I can before they make that decision and then to enforce the rules they put in place. Whatever we decide as a community, I am happy to do my part to make it work.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Greener fleet?

Next week, I will be asking council for permission to use contraband forfeiture funds to purchase a new police car. This police car will be different from anything we have ever put in the fleet before--it's a Ford Fusion Hybrid.

You may be used to seeing Dodge Chargers and Ford Crown Victorias on the streets, as that's what we have been using for many years. These cars are necessary for the majority of police operations because they are among the few that meet the demanding specifications required for pursuit driving. However, we do have some officers working assignments where pursuits are very unlikely. School resource officers, for example, spend much of their time on campus, and their driving is limited to primarily non-emergency functions. That said, they still need real police cars because they are often called upon for traffic control (and those red & blue lights parked on campus make a pretty good deterrent).

Because the city is trying to meet standards for certification by the Florida Green Building Coalition, I thought we could do our part by putting a hybrid car into operation. With its four-door, midsize chassis and 41mpg city EPA rating, the Fusion seems like it will offer the best combination of efficiency and functionality. Making it an even better deal, we plan to pay for the $27,000 vehicle using funds from contraband forfeitures. In FY 09/10, the police department's proceeds from participation in the Pinellas County narcotic drug task force were nearly $28,000. This is in addition to seizures obtained through all other operations.

If all goes well, expect to see the Fusion Hybrid police car at Boca Ciega High School around the beginning of the year.

Here is a picture from leftlanenews.com depicting Ford Fusion Hybrids from NYPD, where they have a test fleet of over 100.

I am a rookie blogger

Well, this is my first divulgence into the world of blogging; hopefully it will turn out to be a successful venture.

I got the idea from Chief Alexander in Boca Raton, who has been blogging for several months now. I also took some suggestions from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who have developed model policies and programs on using social networking as a tool for police departments to exchange information and ideas with their communities.

Statistics show that even not so old methods (e-mail, website development, instant media alerts) are just not fast or sufficient enough for today's social-driven population. One example: people check their Facebook page more frequently than their e-mail!

So I have come to the conclusion that there really is no way around it. The Gulfport Police Department has joined the social media world. This week we launched a facebook page and the Chief's Blog with the specific intention of sharing ideas and information with you, the people who live in, work in, and visit Gulfport.

I intend to post something roughly once a week, and I look forward to your thoughtful responses.