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.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Red Light Camera Update

In February, Gulfport implemented an intersection safety program using photo enforcement of red light violations. The goal of the program was to reduce traffic crashes, most particularly those involving injuries.

I am happy to report after nine months of operation that the effort appears to be producing very successful results. Overall crashes have decreased over 26%, and injury crashes have decreased over 46% when compared to the same time period in 2010.

Details are available on this Power Point that was presented to the city council last night:

Friday, October 28, 2011

Busy Busy

I noticed it has been almost two months since my last blog post. Wow, so much for once a week!

Seems we've been quite busy here lately. Rather than write up a separate post on each subject, I thought I'd just give the highlights here, all in one place.

Communications Transition

Since Council approved the budget with the provision to outsource police communications, we have been working dilligently to make sure the transition is smooth and effective. Before we did anything else, we conducted a staff review of proposals from St. Petersburg and from the Pinellas County Sheriff. Although it was close, the sheriff's proposal got the staff recommendation.

I have appointed Sergeant Josh Stone to supervise the transition, and he began by attending a meeting with sheriff's command and operational staff to address important issues and establish a timeline. We are now in the process of converting GPD historical data so that it will be accessible via the new systems. Training sessions for all personnel have been scheduled, and IT folks are pouring over the hardware and software to ensure we have everything in place that we will need.

The goal is to go live on the new system on January 1, 2012.

Fitness Testing

You have likely heard that police officers will soon be tested for compliance with fitness standards. This has been a long time coming, and the process of developing the policy was very involved and meticulous. We plan to concuct the first test before the end of the year, and officers will be required to comply with the standards within nine months following that first test.

The standards consist of various exercises, including two 220-yard runs, running an obstacle course twice (climbing over a low wall, jumping hurdles of various sizes, and low-crawling for eight feet), and dragging a 150 lb. dummy 100 feet. Officers must complete the test within approximately six minutes. Since all officers must meet this standard in order to be hired in the first place, I don't think we'll have any trouble now.

New Police Cars

This is the first year in as long as I can remember that the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor has not been an available option. Combined with that are the addition of some new models and some serious changes in a few others. The array of choices has made the selection process much more time consuming this year.

Ford replaced the CVPI with a Taurus-based vehicle in either front or all wheel drive and with an optional 365 horsepower, turborchaged engine. Chevrolet swapped the motor in its front-drive police Impala, so it now puts out over 300 horsepower as well. They also added a new car to the fleet--a police only Caprice, which is a rear-drive car with an optional 355 horsepower V-8. Then there is the Dodge Charger, which has been the GPD staple for several years now.  The V-8 Charger continues to lead the pack in terms of performance and interior room, and it cost less than the comparable alternatives. Our conclusion this year was that we will once again replace the aging cars in our fleet with new Chargers.

Professional Affiliations

In addition to the projects and cases that are specific to Gulfport, I have also become very involved in my professional organizations. I see this as very beneficial to the community, as this involvement means access to law and policy makers, funding opportunities, and many other resources to help address problems we encounter every day.

For 2011/2012, I am the chair of the Pinellas Police Standards Council, which is the body designated by the legislature to establish and maintain law enforcement standards for Pinellas County. The group consists of all police chiefs, the sheriff, and the state attorney.

In addition, I have been serving since 2010 as the secretary and treasurer of the Tampa Bay Area Chiefs of Police Association. This is a professional networking group involving law enforcement executives from all agencies in the seven counties in the Tampa Bay region. In my capacity, I vett and diseminate all correspondence between members and the board to ensure that all are kept up to date on legislation, case law, and operational issues related to the field.

So  you can see that, while crime continues to decline, we have plenty to keep us busy in providing quality service to the citizens of Gulfport. If you know of anything we may have missed, or if there is anything you'd like me to look into, please don't hesitate to let me know.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

More Perspective on Outsourcing Dispatch

This week, I visited the two largest law enforcement communications centers in Pinellas County with the goal of seeking a better understanding of how calls are processed. I had last visited these facilities some 18 years ago, and although I've toured several others throughout the state in my experience as an accreditation assessor, the other local centers had escaped my attention.

In a previous post, I highlighted some areas where I felt service was likely to be reduced if Gulfport were to outsource communications to another agency. After my experiences this week, some of my concerns have been tempered, if not alleviated, so I thought it appropriate to share what I learned. Before we go there, however, I think it's important to clarify how calls are currently handled at GPD.

The Gulfport communications center is staffed 24/7 by one person. This one person is responsible for every aspect of police communications, including answering all incoming calls, entering and maintaining the computer aided dispatch (CAD) logs for all officer activity, as well as conducting wants/warrants checks, driver license status checks, and criminal history inquiries. In most larger agencies, these functions are handled by different people. In a typical arrangement, a call-taker answers the phone and collects the information from callers. As the call-taker inputs this information into the computer, it is sent to another person--a dispatcher--who then sends the police officers to the calls. Yet another person is responsible for conducting the database inquiries.

Some of the things I learned during my trips this week:
  • Both Sheriff Coats and Chief Deputy Gualtieri have verbally agreed to offer employment to all four communications dispatchers who would lose their Gulfport jobs in the transition. Previously, this had only been a likely possibility. Should somebody other than Gualtieri be appointed to replace Coats when he retires, I will seek the same commitment from that individual.
  • Calls made to 893-1030 (GPD's non-emergency number) would be forwarded to an internal administrative phone that is answered by an individual switchboard operator or call-taker. Previously, I had assumed Gulfport callers would be directed to the automated phone system.
  • Previously, I had suggested that the lack of geographic familiarity might cause a delayed response. This was based on the assumption that a call-taker could not create a call ticket without knowing the location of the incident. Without a call-ticket, the dispatcher would not even be aware of the call. I learned that the physical proximity of call-takers and dispatchers is actually such that information can be exchanged face to face when necessary. This means that, even without an address, a call-taker can tell a dispatcher to send officers to "a prowler at the red brick church" for example.
  • I also expressed concern that Gulfport calls might be delayed as dispatchers prioritize them in a queue with calls from other locations in south Pinellas County. While this still holds true, my concerns were mitigated by the fact that the computer system allows field officers to see pending calls even before they are dispatched. This means that the officers will be able to initiate a response even if the dispatcher hasn't gotten to sending them yet.
As a result of my visits to these other facilities, I am comfortable that the above issues no longer merit concern. Also since my last post, I have reported to elected officials that there are several benefits associated with local outsourcing of communications. I felt it would be appropriate to include them here as well:

  • GPD officers would have direct and immediate communications access to officers or deputies working in adjoining areas. This means that any information transmitted via radio would instantly be received by all those working on that designated channel.
  • GPD officers would have direct and immediate access to the other agency’s records database. Currently, checking this data requires additional, time-consuming steps.
  • There would be increased interaction and familiarity between GPD officers and those working in surrounding jurisdictions. This would enhance our ability to use eachother’s resources for problem-oriented policing initiatives.
Alleviated concerns and benefits aside, there are still three negative impacts that are unavoidable should outsourcing come to pass.

  1. We will no longer be able to use the holding facility. In the last twelve months, we detained 131 people in our holding cells. The reasons are many and varied, but most often it is because a more in-depth interview is required. In such a case, the officer will secure the prisoner in a holding cell, and while the dispatcher monitors the video feed, the officer will prepare for the interview. These interviews are complicated matters which require careful planning, including reviewing reports and criminal history, preparing forms, setting up recording devices, etc. If we cannot use the holding facility, then it will take two officers each and every time an interview is needed. One will have to wait with the prisoner in the patrol car (which is much less safe and secure) while the investigating officer takes time to prepare for the interview. The only alternative would be for the investigating officer to drive 40 minutes each way to conduct his or her interview at the county jail, where the prisoner will have had time to consult with others about his or her case.
  2. We will no longer be able to let people into the building during after hours emergencies. Although we don't keep logs on how often this happens, I can assure you that it does happen. People, especially crime victims, do not feel safe standing outside the building waiting for an officer to respond. Some have said that people can go to the fire station in such situations, but that is not a realistic alternative. When they are on a call, the station is empty. At night, the firefighters are asleep in a bunk-room where they may not be likely to hear a knock on the door. Even then, it takes time to wake up, get to the door, and figure out what's going on before deciding to let somebody in. For their own safety, we can't expect firefighters to let just anybody into their building in the middle of the night.
  3. When it comes to quality control, we will become customers instead of bosses. In the event of questionable conduct on the part of communications staff, my role will be limited. Instead of making a decision and taking corrective action, I will have to contact a supervisor at the other agency and make a complaint. At that point, the matter will be out of my hands.
So there you have it, a thorough and up-to-date analysis of the pros and cons associated with local outsourcing of police communications. As this issue has been debated in recent weeks, I have done by best to maintain a neutral role. My job as a professional is to provide factual information to the elected officials and the public. To the extent that I have an opinion, it would be inappropriate to allow it to affect any decisions that are made. Those of you who have concerns are invited to contact your elected representatives before they vote at the upcoming budget hearings.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

On Discretion and Enforcement

Scenario: you are sitting at a red light next to a police officer in a marked cruiser. As your light turns green, a car on the cross street drives in front of you, clearly running the red light. You look at the police officer, expecting him to pull over the offending motorist, but instead, he drives on and appears to ignore the violation.

Most of us have seen this or something similar, and the natural impression is that the officer is not doing his job. While that may be the case once in a while, I would like to assure you that in the vast majority of such incidents, there is a valid reason.

Consider a day in the life of your typical police officer on patrol. He starts the twelve-hour shift with one or two unwritten reports from the day before. As he logs onto his computer, he receives a half dozen messages with requests for extra patrol, BOLO (be on the lookout) notices for wanted persons, and a list of recently-stolen vehicles. On top of that, he knows he is responsible for the resolution of at least one problem-oriented-patrol case as well as follow up investigation on any number of criminal offense reports. This sets the tone for a long work day.

Throughout the day, the officer will be dispatched eight to ten times in response to calls for service, and he will be flagged down two to three times by people requesting assistance or information. About four times per day, the officer will be required to start a new police report, each of which can take up to an hour to complete. Amongst all of this, the officer will find time to initiate his own activity either as a preventive measure (foot patrols and citizen contacts) or in an effort to enforce an observed violation (traffic stops, etc). These officer-initiated actions will occur ten to twelve times in a typical shift.

As the officer is going about his work, he is likely to observe dozens, if not hundreds, of technical violations of the law. Examples include moving traffic violations, vehicle equipment violations, parking violations, littering, animal violations, bicycle violations, as well as city code violations. Unfortunately, there simply is not enough time for the officer to intervene every time he sees something amiss. To help decide, the officer will follow an unofficial prioritization list that goes something like this:
  1. In progress felonies involving personal injury or likely death
  2. Accidents involving serious injuries
  3. In progress crimes against persons
  4. In progress crimes against property
  5. Violations related to an ongoing problem-oriented patrol
  6. Non-violent, vice and drug related crimes
  7. Moving traffic violations
  8. Non-moving traffic violations
  9. Incident specific code violations, such as fires or dogs on the beach, parking, etc.
  10. Nuisance code violations, such as noise or false alarms
  11. Other code violations, such as unkempt properties
So you can see that the higher the risk, the more likely it is that the officer will intervene. Of course, this does not apply to an officer who is responding to a specific call for service. If you call police to report a person walking a dog without a leash, for example, the responding officer should intervene if he witnesses the violation.

Now, what the officer does when he makes contact with the violator is another subject entirely. Every police officer is given the authority to use his best judgment in making decisions on how to resolve incidents. Sometimes this means an arrest or citation. Sometimes it means a warning. There are even times when the appropriate response is to take no action at all. What the officer decides to do is dependent upon a vast multitude of factors, some of which I will attempt to describe:
  1. Is this violation part of a larger problem that is contributing to crime or fear of crime? Is there empirical evidence of that problem, or is it just an issue that has garnered the attention of a vocal minority of the population?
  2. What is the history of the individual and/or location involved? Have there been prior warnings or enforcement action for similar violations? Is he or she somebody who is relied upon to provide information or assistance in other, higher-priority investigations, and could enforcement action jeopardize that resource?
  3. What is the attitude of the violator? Does he or she appear to be willing to voluntarily correct the behavior? Was he or she aware of the law prohibiting the conduct?
  4. Are there circumstances that lawfully justify the conduct?
  5. What is the motivation of the complaint? Is it an independent and concerned citizen or a jealous ex-spouse?
  6. Are the law and department policies clear on this subject? Any vagaries or doubts could be costly down the road.
  7. Is the enforcement action worth the required commitment of time (both now and perhaps in court later), or does the officer have the proverbial "more important things to do"?
In the end, I believe our officers mostly make the right decisions when they deal with these situations every day. We hire educated, well-rounded, moral people to serve Gulfport as police officers, and I trust their judgment in almost every case. Of course, there are occasions when even good people make bad choices, and it's my job to step in when that happens. I will always be open to hear concerns from anybody who feels an officer acted improperly, and I will always respond.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Barney Doesn't Work Here

Despite perceptions to the contrary, Gulfport is not Mayberry. And while I could do worse than to be compared to Andy Griffith, I’m not exactly Sheriff Taylor material either. While we in Gulfport like to celebrate characteristics like being unique and quaint, our similarities to the fictional small town police department end there.
The Gulfport Police Department in 2011 is, quite honestly, among the most professional law enforcement organizations in the world. How can I make such a claim? Consider these facts:
·         Accredited by the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation in 2000, the agency has been reaccredited three times. Of the over 350 law enforcement agencies in Florida, only 68 have achieved this level of recognition for consistently providing exemplary law enforcement service. The accreditation process mandates frequent review and updating of policies and procedures to ensure that they are always in line with the industry’s best practices.
·         Minimum education standards for police officers specify a high school diploma or GED. Gulfport requires college education of at least 60 credit hours from an accredited institution. In fact, over one-third of our officers have at least a bachelor’s degree, and twenty percent have a master’s degree.
·         The Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission requires that officers complete forty hours of advanced training every four years. In Gulfport, the average officer receives four to five times that amount. We go above and beyond to ensure that officers receive frequent refresher training in all high-liability areas (firearms, intermediate weapons, vehicle operations) as well as timely updates on changes in statutes or case law. In addition, those officers assigned to special investigations or operations are provided advanced training commensurate with their positions. Sex crimes investigators, for example, receive forty hours of instruction exclusive to that subject alone.
·         Six of the thirty sworn officers working in Gulfport are certified as professional instructors in various subjects. This means they are recognized and authorized to train recruits and in-service law enforcement personnel throughout the state on topics ranging from use of force to emergency vehicle operations.
·         The officers working this community are provided with the latest and most effective technology and equipment in order to facilitate their mission. Some examples:
o   Mobile dispatch system allowing officers to access call and records information, as well as limitless web-based resources from their patrol cars.
o   Radio system allowing interagency communication at all levels.
o   Audio/video recording devices for each patrol car or patrol officer.
o   Each officer is issued or has access to a .40 caliber primary handgun (they get more than one bullet—sorry Barney), .38 or .40 caliber backup handgun, .223 caliber rifle, 12 gauge shotgun with less-lethal ammunition, Taser electronic control device, expandable steel baton, and OC chemical weapon.
o   Laser and Radar speed measuring and range-finding equipment.
o   Automatic license plate recognition cameras on a patrol vehicle.
o   Biometric security devices for all mobile computers.
o   Low-light enhanced vision monoculars.
o   Covert video surveillance cameras and monitoring equipment.
These professional, highly-trained, and well-equipped officers stay very busy in Gulfport. In a typical year, they respond to 12,000 calls for service, document 3,000 incidents, investigate 600 serious criminal offenses, and work 160 traffic crash scenes. This workload is among the highest, per officer, among agencies in the Tampa Bay area.
Many of the investigations and operations conducted by Gulfport officers are done in conjunction with their colleagues in surrounding communities. The level of cooperation enjoyed among the Pinellas law enforcement agencies is envied by those in other regions. As we go about the business of finding and arresting criminals, we are constantly reminded that Gulfport is but a neighborhood in a large and densely-populated metropolitan area. The transient nature that is so characteristic of the criminal element does not recognize the unique and quaint nature that many of our residents have come to love.
Dealing with these transient criminals while recognizing and prioritizing the Gulfport way of life is a constant challenge for our police officers. I do my best to pick good ones, then I give them the right tools to do the job. Personally, I think they’re doing pretty well, even without Sheriff Taylor in charge.
What do you think?
Disclaimer:  No offense is intended to the Mt. Airy, North Carolina Police Department, which is in fact a modern and professional police organization (Mt. Airy being the town that served as the inspiration for the Andy Griffith show).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Community Policing vs. Problem Oriented Policing

Yes, there is a difference; and no, it's not just semantics. Let me explain. The citizens of Gulfport provide the funding that we use to hire and train police officers, purchase equipment, and conduct the day to day operations of a modern police department. My job as chief is to ensure that money is being well spent, so my goal is to keep people feeling as safe as possible, using as little of our resources as possible. Community policing and problem oriented policing are how we get it done.

Calls for Service

Let's start with calls for service (CFS). For many years, police departments (including Gulfport) focused on CFS as the primary workload of police officers. Generally speaking, somebody called the police, and we would send an officer. The officer would gather and report the information, investigate if need be, maybe make an arrest, and then move on to the next call. The theory used to be that by calculating the number of CFS, a chief could determine the number of officers he needed on patrol. The problem is, that is a very wasteful way to do business. If you look closely at those calls, you begin to notice that the vast majority of them were repeats. We were going to the same places and dealing with the same people over and over again. If each time we just dealt with the immediate situation, chances were we would be back again very soon. To make better use of police officers' time, it makes more sense to address the root of the problem so that we don't have to come back again.

Problem Oriented Policing

Problem oriented policing is the answer to the repeat CFS dilemma. New officers are being trained (and older ones re-trained) to recognize the signs of problems rather than individual incidents. They employ a dedicated, multi-phased approach to identifying and resolving problems. This approach is known as the SARA method.

Scanning--relying on personal observations, input from citizens and business owners, or even news reports, officers note trends that could indicate potential problems. They focus on problems that tend to result in criminal activity or the perception/fear of criminal activity.

Analysis--following up on their initial observations, officers conduct detailed review of all available facts about the problem. Often times, they employ our full-time analyst to assist as they take note of prior calls and reports, individual criminal histories, intelligence documents, and any other records that may exist. The review of this information will either confirm or invalidate the problem.

Response--if the analysis proves that a genuine problem exists, the officer next devises and implements a plan to resolve that problem. This is where the efficiency comes into play. Take, for example, a problem where high school kids are stealing cell phones and GPS devices out of unlocked cars that are parked on the roadways along the kids' walking commute after school. One response could involve the deployment of several undercover officers for several days in a row, hoping to catch and apprehend the burglars in the act. There is, however, a much more effective (and less expensive) way to handle the problem. The one officer could contact resources at the high school to amend the walking routes, work with juvenile probation officers to identify known burglars and enforce compliance with court ordered-sanctions, ask existing crime watch groups to help spread the word to neighbors how to better secure their vehicles, and employ the city's public relations department to air a televised PSA on auto burglary prevention. In the end, this approach is much more likely to resolve the problem, and it uses considerably less police resources.

Assessment--once the resolution is completed, the officer will want to know if it had an effect. Again, this requires extensive analysis of factors that relate to the problem. Have crimes or calls of this nature decreased? Do citizens report feeling less threatened by these circumstances? If the assessment does not indicate improvement, the officer will go back and try again, this time using a different resolution with different resources.

Community Policing

If problem oriented policing is the vehicle we use to get the job done, community policing is the fuel. In all phases of the SARA model, officers are called upon to make use of various resources. In scanning, they have to know the community stakeholders in order to get a feel for what these people are experiencing. In the analysis, officers must know who to ask for information. Whether it's utility billing information, code enforcement history, or conditions of criminal probation, officers must make and maintain contacts in all sorts of places in order to get the intelligence they need. When it comes time to implement the resolution, other contacts become valuable. How valuable is it, for example, to be on good terms with the manager of the fish market when you want to plant a hidden camera inside the store to record activity across the street? Finally, in order to assess the effectiveness of the resolution, the officers must know who and how to ask. After all, even the best efforts are worth little or nothing if you don't help the right people in the right way.

The ongoing conduct by police officers that identifies, develops, and maintains these valuable contacts is known as community policing. It is through this important process that we gain the resources to use in identifying and solving problems, and it is the use of those resources that allows us to do the most good for the least expense of taxpayers' money.

For more information on community and problem oriented policing, visit the the US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at : http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Outsource Dispatch? Some Things to Consider

In the Fall of last year, I received a proposal from Pinellas County Sheriff, Jim Coats to provide police communications and records management services for the Gulfport Police Department. I requested this proposal at the city manager's direction to look for more efficient means of providing police services to Gulfport residents.

The proposal calls for transferring the following functions from the Gulfport Police Department to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office:

  1. Emergency (911) and non-emergency telephone calls for police service
  2. Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) service (tracking, logging, and archiving Call for Service data)
  3. Dispatching emergency and non-emergency calls and other police activity
  4. Data entry and maintenance of police offense, incident, and crash reports (RMS database) 
Although it would have a great impact, this proposal would not completely eliminate our responsibilities in these areas. For example, Gulfport Police personnel would continue to bear the burden for handling the following:

  1. Providing a means to process the volume of alternative business currently handled by communications dispatchers (after-hours calls for other city business; data entry and filing for citations, trespass warnings, bicycle registrations, and domestic violence injunctions)
  2. Maintaining support (information technology, funding, operations, training) for related hardware and software
  3. Responding to public records requests for documents created by and for GPD personnel
  4. Uploading supplemental documents to the records management system database
  5. Crime analysis of data entered by and for GPD personnel
Service changes

Some important changes will occur if this proposal is implemented. Many of these will be directly apparent to the citizens; some will be indirect:

  1. There would no longer be an employee in the police building during non-business hours. This means that we could lose the ability to immediately let people into the building as a safe area of refuge in emergencies.
  2. Without some very expensive modification, we could lose the ability to safely use our holding facility. Because there would be nobody on hand to monitor the video or alarm systems after hours, use of the facility would violate accreditation and acceptable safety standards.
  3. There is a steep learning curve associated with changing the CAD and RMS systems. Police officers, supervisors, detectives, analysts, and IT personnel will see reduced efficiency during the time it takes to learn the intricacies of the new software.
  4. Sheriff’s personnel are not as geographically familiar with the City of Gulfport. Many times, callers do not have an address to provide to the call-taker, and locations are identified based on knowledge of local landmarks and street names. Lack of familiarity could result in a delayed response in some cases.
  5. The sheriff’s telephone system is automated. Non-emergency calls are answered by a computer with menu selections. Gulfport residents are not used to this.
  6. Gulfport management would lose direct authority and quality control over several important functions, including call-taking, dispatching, and certain IT support. We would also lose direct control over decisions related to communications operations, software applications, and others.
Cost savings

Implementation of this proposal would allow the city to reduce or eliminate the following expenses:

  1. Dispatch Personnel—four full-time dispatchers could be eliminated at a savings of approximately $264,000 annually (including salary, overtime, benefits, training, etc). It is recommended that we retain our records specialist to process records requests, answer administrative telephone calls, and serve as a public receptionist. It is also recommended that we retain the police services supervisor to serve as a police IT and equipment technician.
  2. Information Technology Personnel--approximately 70% of the network administrator's time is spent managing the police department's CAD and RMS systems. Elimination of that position could save approximately $75,000 in salary and benefits.
  3. Equipment operations—elimination of some communications and computer equipment would result in a savings of approximately $17,000 in associated maintenance costs annually.
Those savings aside, there may be some extra costs associated with making this change. We will need, for example, to configure a way for after-hours, walk-up complainants to communicate with PCSO staff. We will also have to modify some wiring and video surveillance equipment to allow the records technician/receptionist to have access to these functions during business hours. Approximately $10,000 is estimated for these expenses. Additionally, we estimate that it will cost approximately $30,000 to convert the existing data in the GPD database so that it will be accessible via the sheriff's database.

Considering an initial estimate of $115,000 and an ongoing annual estimate of $85,000 from the sheriff, savings projections would be as follows:

            $201,000 approximate initial savings
            $271,000 approximate annual savings

Other Factors to Consider

A number of other factors should be on the table when considering the feasibility of outsourcing police records and communications:

  1. Sheriff Coats has agreed to give consideration to those Gulfport employees who may lose their jobs in the transition, but he cannot guarantee they will be hired. If they are hired, it will be at the starting rate with no accrued benefits, and it will not necessarily be in the same or similar capacity.
  2. Acceptance of this proposal could obligate future budgets and operations to comply with unforeseen changes over which Gulfport management would have little or no input.
  3. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is not accredited by the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation. Although they are accredited by other similar organizations, slight differences in the standards could result in non-compliance issues for which we are accountable but over which we have no control.
  4. This decision should be considered permanent. Once this service is transferred to the sheriff’s office, bringing it back under the control of the police department would be nearly impossible given the associated startup costs.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Police and Code Enforcement

Lots of folks are talking code enforcement lately. It seems some would like to see a greater effort on the part of the city to address violations that make the place appear unsightly. There is some validity to that argument. Studies have shown that residents in blighted areas are much more likely to fear crime, even when actual crime is no higher than in other areas. That begs the question: how much should police be involved in the code enforcement process?

It may seem logical for police to handle the city's code enforcement function (we already have officers patrolling the streets, and they already have authority to enforce the laws), but there are many reasons I believe it is a bad idea.
  1. Code enforcement is a process. Every step follows an established procedure and is documented to ensure consistency and to make sure that follow-ups are completed in a timely manner. It must be done this way so there can be no validity to a claim that one property owner is treated differently from another and to ensure that problems are not neglected once identified. This degree of consistency and documentation requires a great deal of clerical support. For every enforcement action initiated, a significant percentage of the effort involves administrative tasks handled in the office rather than in the field. The city does not have sufficient support staff to take on this work, which means police officers themselves would have to take time off the streets to perform the required clerical duties. I think most would agree that is a bad idea.
  2. Code enforcement officials rarely have to deal with Constitutional issues. Because enforcement does not typically result in any kind of seizure, the provisions of the 4th Amendment usually do not apply. With police officers, however, the Constitution is always a concern. Imagine, for example, a complaint about rotting vegetation in a back yard. If a code officer peers over a fence to confirm the violation, no rights will have been violated because the code officer cannot seize persons or property. If a police officer (with authority to make arrests and seize property) does the same thing, he could find himself faced with a claim for a breach of civil rights. This inherent conflict of interest makes it a bad idea for police to be involved in routine code enforcement.
  3. Police officers are charged with investigating criminal activity, which often requires that they develop and maintain open channels of communication with residents who can provide tips and other information. The people who provide this information are themselves often guilty of code violations on their properties. If police are asked to enforce these violations, it could have a detrimental effect on their ability to get voluntary cooperation from these residents in more serious, criminal investigations.
These are just a few examples that illustrate why I believe police should not be the primary tool for code enforcement. That does not mean, however, that we cannot help the cause. Our officers can and do report observed violations to the code enforcement officials, particularly when the code violations are contributing to an overall public safety problem.

So what is the solution? Not sure really. With one code officer and a fraction of a staff assistant, the city's resources are limited. Increasing the enforcement effort will require more people to do the work, and we're not exactly in a position to afford that right now. We'll just have to see what the future holds.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How Do We Choose Police Cars?

I am often asked how we decide which cars to purchase for our patrol fleet. Some think we just pick the one that looks the most intimidating, but if that were the case, we would be driving Abrams Tanks. In reality, the decision involves a great deal of research and thought.

There are six different considerations that go into our decision on police vehicle purchases.  Each of them is discussed below.
1.      The design of the vehicle must be such that it meets the needs of police operations.  The car must have means to secure lots of equipment, and it must be capable of transporting a front-seat passenger and secured prisoners in the back seat.  This means that it must have four doors and sufficient interior room to allow for installation of a prisoner partition.  Essentially, the only vehicles that will meet this requirement are full-size sedans or sport-utility vehicles.
2.      The performance capabilities of the vehicle must be able to meet the needs of police operations.  Emergency responses, pursuits, and traffic enforcement all require 100% of a vehicle’s performance capability.  Officers are trained to use full acceleration and threshold braking for the entire duration of a response.  Seconds could mean the difference between life and death, or between the apprehension and escape of a violator.  In traffic enforcement, successful prosecution requires that the officer be able to maintain sight of a violator until initiating a traffic stop within the city limits.  This requires powerful acceleration.

3.      The vehicle must be designed and built in such a way that it will withstand the stresses encountered under typical operations.  Emergency response driving puts extreme stresses on the engine, brakes, cooling system, and chassis.  All of these things must be strong enough to handle the abuse.  In addition, police cars spend a great deal of time idling (traffic stops, perimeter posts, crashes, etc), which means that the cooling systems must be built to keep the cars from overheating in such conditions.  Finally, the computer, video system, radio, and emergency equipment can put a tremendous draw on the electric system.  The vehicle must have an alternator of sufficient capacity to handle the load.

4.      The maintenance requirements should not be so costly that they outweigh any initial savings recognized by the purchase of a less-expensive vehicle.  The only real alternative that offers an initial cost savings is the Chevrolet Impala.  While the car costs approximately 20% less than others, its front-wheel-drive design is likely to require additional maintenance costing much more over the life of the car.  Constant velocity (CV) joints must be maintained, and the front weight bias puts more wear on the brakes and tires, requiring that they be replaced more frequently.  Additionally, front-wheel-drive cars have a transverse-mounted engine, and the last time Gulfport Police used this layout, the engine mounts could not handle the stress and had to be replaced regularly.

5.      The vehicle should be designed and built in such a way that the city will be exposed to the least liability in the event of a claim resulting from its operation.  This is the primary reason we select vehicles that are marketed for pursuit driving.  Because the manufacturer represents that the vehicle is intended for such a purpose, it reduces the liability to the city if an officer were to cause or be involved in a crash while responding to an emergency or while involved in a pursuit.  If we were to purchase any other vehicle, the city would have to defend the use of the vehicle under such conditions.  Doing so would require evaluations in the manner conducted annually by the Michigan State Police, and we simply do not have the resources to do this.
6.      The vehicle should be replaced when its maintenance costs become excessive or when it is no longer reliable for emergency operations.  Gulfport patrol cars average about 20,000 miles per year each.  If we purchase new cars once per year, the schedule would result in replacement at 60K, 80K, or 100K miles.  While the 80,000 mile mark does not typically extend into the realm of unreliability, 100,000 does.  This is the point at which major maintenance must occur, and it also historically been the point when important components fail under pressure, including the engine, transmission, and brakes.  Due to the critical nature of these vehicles, it is in the best interest of the city to replace them before they are subject to those conditions.

For patrol use, the Gulfport Police Department should replace its fleet every 80,000 miles with rear-wheel-drive sedans marketed by their manufacturer for pursuit operation.  Only two such vehicles currently exist in the United States.  They are the Chevrolet Caprice and the Dodge Charger.  Both have similar performance and fuel economy ratings, but the Caprice costs approximately 10% more. The Charger is available with two engine options: a 292 bhp V-6 and a 370 bhp V-8. Using cylinder deactivation technology, the V-8 achieves EPA mileage ratings similar to the V-6, and under the Florida Sheriff’s Association purchasing agreement, the V-8 costs just $400 more.
All things considered, the Charger with V-8 engine is the best option currently available, which is why our fleet consists primarily of these cars.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Take-Home Police Cars?

The City Council will soon be asked to approve an agreement between the City and the Police Benevolent Association, which is the police officers' union. This agreement has been negotiated for the past few months by the attorneys for both parties, and the result is essentially a carryover of the previous agreement, with one big change: take home police cars.

Subject to final approval, the conditions are expected to be as follows:
  1. We will use the existing fleet; no new cars will be purchased to accomodate this program.
  2. Sixteen vehicles will be assigned to senior officers. The other officers will share the five remaining fleet cars.
  3. Cars will only be assigned to sworn officers who live in Pinellas County (with the addition of on-call command staff and detectives).
  4. Except for those who are on-call, officers may only use the cars for city business or commuting to and from city business.
  5. Officers will be required to clean the vehicles on their own time and using their own supplies.
As the police chief, I support the take-home car program because I feel it benefits both the officers as well as the City. The advantages for the officers are fairly obvious, but not so apparent are the perks for the taxpayers. Consider these:
  1. In the case of the officers who live in Gulfport, the presence of the patrol cars will have a positive effect on crime prevention and community policing efforts.
  2. Take-home vehicles last longer. Studies in other agencies have shown that officers take much better care of assigned cars, which leads to longer life and lower maintenance costs. Also, with one officer driving the car, it will take more time to reach the replacement mileage threshold. We expect to keep these vehicles 20% longer than the fleet rotation counterparts, which can add up to a great deal of long-term capital savings.
  3. While all officers are subject to call at any time, those with take-home cars are more available to respond in case of emergency. During the commute, they are connected by radio and computer to all calls for service and can instantly respond if needed. At all other times, they have an emergency vehicle at their disposal to hasten the commute when necessary.
  4. This is a much more efficient use of officers' time. With fleet cars, officers must spend about a half hour every day loading and uloading required equipment, as well as performing inspections for damage and contraband. Those tasks are not required with assigned vehicles, which means on average, each officer will save approximately 90 hours per year that can be dedicated to actual police work.
  5. Recruitment of new officers will require less effort and expense. Take-home cars for law enforcement officers is quickly becoming the standard for this market. Without such a benefit, our staff must go to extra lengths to find, recruit, and retain qualified officers. Having this program in place, we will be able to compete for the best on a level playing field.
I truly believe this is a win-win situation for all parties, but if you have a different perspective, I'd love to hear from you. I will update this post with details on the date, time, etc. of the scheduled council vote.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Red Light Cameras--A Commitment to Safety

By now you have likely heard the news; on March 21st, Gulfport will start using photo enforcement cameras for red light violations. This will make us the third city in Pinellas County (behind Kenneth City and South Pasadena) to implement these measures. Likely to follow will be the cities of St. Petersburg and Oldsmar, both of whom are now in planning stages.

I have been involved in this project for three years now, and in that time I have become intimately familiar with the details. Armed with this information, and from my perspective as police chief, I am confident we are moving in the right direction.

Controversial subject?

There are those who say that red light cameras are about revenue and not safety. They say that the cameras actually have little effect on reducing traffic crashes, and that they may in fact increase crashes. Some claim that the enforcement mechanism is unfair or even unconstitutional.

To all of these, I say they are simply wrong.

Yes, red light camera enforcement will probably result in revenue for the city. I am just not sure why that is such a concern. Cities have been receiving revenue from traffic fines since roads were first built. The only difference with this program is that citations will be issued via an automated process rather than a police officer. So the true question becomes this: do we really need to issue that many citations?

The answer lies in the fact that more people are killed and seriously injured in traffic crashes than in all forms of crime combined. The worst of these crashes typically involve a red light violation. If we truly want to put resources where the problems lie, then we need to put as much as possible into traffic enforcement. Unfortunately, the budget situation simply won't allow us to employ enough officers to do the level of enforcement we ought to be doing. So when an option comes along that allows me to catch almost 100 percent of violators without having to deploy a single officer, I'm all for it.

Photo enforcement reduces crashes and saves lives. Period. I have personally looked at many of the studies that purport to show otherwise, and I have found major issues with their results. For example, one publication suggested red light cameras caused crashes to increase in Los Angeles. Detailed review, however, shows that the "researcher" was including crashes within a block of the intersection, whether or not related to the traffic signal. When those irrelevant crashes were excluded, the results were the opposite: crashes at camera-controlled intersections had decreased.

Also note the February, 2011 study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). This independent organization found that red-light-running crashes reduced 35% from 2004 to 2008 in the 14 largest cities with red light cameras in operation.

Due process means you have the right to challenge your accuser and present evidence on your behalf. Every person who receives a violation notice from a photo enforcement program will have that right. The process for these types of violations is no different than it is for any other; a traffic court magistrate will rule based on the evidence presented from both sides. What makes photo enforced violations different is the fact that the vehicle owner, and not necessarily the driver, is the responsible party. That issue brings about claims of unfairness.

Consider this, however. Courts have upheld the eviction of tenants based on the unruly behavior of guests. The government also holds taxpayers accountable for false returns completed by a third party. Even police are allowed to seize property used in the commission of a crime when the owner is not the one using said property. The major argument behind all of these is that the owner bears responsibility in exercising control over his or her property. Red light violations are no different. Vehicle owners must scrutinize those to whom they consider lending their cars. If a citation is issued, the owner can always demand that the borrower pay up or risk losing the right to borrow the vehicle in the future.


Pinellas County has among the highest traffic crash injury and death rates in the United States. Our society, and Gulfport is no exception, cannot afford NOT to take advantage of every opportunity to address this situation. The use of a camera enforcement program precisely targets the main problem while allowing us to use our existing resources on other issues. If we happen to end up with some money in the end, so be it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mourning the Loss

Yesterday, two St. Petersburg police officers were killed in the line of duty. Wow, somehow writing it down makes it seem more real. I like to think of myself as an experienced law man. I've been on the job now for seventeen years, and I have been to more police funerals than I care to remember. And while each of them was heart wrenching, none have been so difficult to bear as the deaths of Sergeant Baitinger and Officer Yaslowitz. This one is somehow more personal. These were not just brother officers doing the same job; they were next-door neighbors working the same streets and dealing with the same people that my officers and I have worked and dealt with for years.

The Pinellas County law enforcement community is very tight-knit. Because of our close boundaries, we work together and see each other constantly. We are, without a doubt, a family, and it's been a long time since this has happened to one of us. In fact, the last time was while I was attending the police academy in 1993. Officer Jeffery Tackett of the Belleair Police Department was killed while trying to apprehend a burglary suspect. I recall the sensation of incredible anger and a strong desire to help however possible. I felt the same emotions yesterday as I stood by other members of our family at the St. Petersburg command post, wanting nothing more than to go in and get the man responsible.

Every May, the sheriff hosts a memorial ceremony where we honor those who have lost their lives in the service of Pinellas County residents. The names of fallen officers are read aloud, and each year I wonder when another name will be added. Last year, I noted that it had been seventeen years since a name was put on the list--the longest gap we've ever had. And I hoped and prayed it wasn't a sign that somebody was due.

That good fortune came to an end yesterday, as we were all suddenly and harshly reminded of the dangers we face in our line of work. Evil manifested itself in a violent and unthinkable manner, killing two of our family and wounding another. Today, tomorrow, and in the coming days, we will attempt to mourn this loss and put some meaning behind what happened. As we do that, I for one will endure emotions that I thought were made dormant from life experience.

I am frustrated, angry, and sad over the loss, as are likely most of those who live and work in Tampa Bay. Yet as I listened to the St. Petersburg District 1 radio traffic yesterday morning, and as I stood at the command post with Chief Harmon yesterday afternoon, I began to experience an entirely unexpected emotion. I witnessed first-hand the bravery of my fellow officers as they begged to go back and face death to try and save their friend. I watched as an entire city put aside its issues and poured its collective support into hoping for the best. In the midst of this awful tragedy, I saw people, all kinds of people and lots of them, simply doing the right thing.

The result of all this for me was a seemingly conflicting sense of great pride in my profession and my community. At first I felt guilty for having positive emotions at such a time, but as I sit here and put my thoughts into words, I think I'm seeing things exactly as I should. I also think I am not alone. I predict that this terrible loss will have a positive impact on all of us in this family. We will grieve, but we will move forward and come back with a stronger sense of community and with a better focus on the direction we need to go.

*Note to media representatives--

I published this post today because I want my officers and my small community of blog followers to know how I feel about this situation. However, I think it would be inappropriate for my statements to be published or reproduced in a larger media outlet at this time. I would not want my statements to overshadow or take attention away from those of Chief Harmon or Mayor Foster as they lead the city's time of grief. They have an incredible responsibility, and I believe they are owed that respect.  Thank you for your consideration.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Crime Down For 2010

We just tallied the numbers for 2010, and the results support what I thought was the case. Crime is down--way down.

From 2009 to 2010, overall crimes* dropped by 25 percent in Gulfport. That is an astounding reduction, and the most significant decreases were in the two areas where officers put the most attention--burglaries and auto thefts. While this is certainly good news, and while I'd like to credit our refocus on community policing last year, I will wait to see results from other local communities as well those around the state. After all, the drops we've seen in Gulfport could be part of a much larger trend.

Keep an eye out for the police department's 2010 annual report, which will be published in early February. This document will provide detailed analysis of crime and budget issues, as well as information on all operational components within the agency. Have a look at the 2009 version for an idea on what to expect.


*crimes for comparison purposes are those reported to the FBI as Part-One offenses. These include the following: murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft.