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.