Since John C. White was appointed city marshal in 1910, Gulfport has had its own officers patrolling the city. Some are wondering if that’s soon to change. In case you haven’t heard the news, St. Pete Beach residents recently voted by an approximate 60/40 margin to allow the city commission to contract law enforcement services to an outside agency. As that vote was taking place, the Gulfport City Council directed its city attorney to draft an ordinance that would strengthen the standing of the police department in Gulfport. With all this going on, lots of people have been asking for my opinion. I thought I would make it easy and just put my thoughts here on the old blog.
First, we should ask why there are so many local police departments in the first place. This kind of arrangement is fairly unique to the United States. Most other countries rely on national or regional police agencies. Here, the founding fathers made it clear that they wanted as much control as possible to be in the hands of the smallest governments possible. They wanted the people, and not the big governments, to have the power. This was the birth of the home rule concept, and local police departments are the most visible embodiment of its application.
“Home Rule” means that the elected body of government for a municipality gets to independently (within the law) determine the direction and application of its resources. The input of the council and administration on these subjects directly affects the well-being of the residents, as well as the reputation of the city as a whole. When it comes to the police department, here are some examples of precisely what that means:
- Professionalism—Is the law enforcement agency accredited? What are the officer selection standards in terms of education, background, etc? What is the commitment to training employees
- Operational risk—What sort of weapons do the officers use-rifles, tazers, chemicals, rubber bullets? To what extent are officers permitted to use intermediate weapons? What is the vehicle pursuit policy?
- Tolerance—what are the enforcement priorities, and how strictly are laws and local regulations enforced?
Regardless of which agency provides law enforcement service, the above factors affect the reputation of the city as a whole. For example, visitors will recall how they are treated by the law enforcement during their trip to Gulfport, and it will not matter what the patch on the uniform says (many won’t even notice or recall). The reputation of the agency has a direct and powerful effect on the reputation of the city, and when the law enforcement services are outsourced, the city has little influence over the agency’s reputation.
Aside from these broad and far-reaching aspects, maintaining a local police department has more tangible and direct benefits to the residents, businesses, and visitors in the community. Here are some examples:
- The chief of police is involved in the community. When I spend hours every week engaging with residents, business owners, and community leaders, and when I routinely participate in community events, I build on a nearly twenty year history of direct involvement with Gulfport. That translates directly into how I set priorities and policies for the entire agency.
- Because I serve as the chief of the Gulfport Police Department and not simply as a command officer from another agency, I have the power to influence other decision-making entities directly on behalf of the residents of Gulfport. I hold influential positions on the Pinellas Police Standards Council, Tampa Bay Area Chiefs of Police Association, Florida Police Chiefs Association, and law enforcement accreditation authorities. In these capacities, I help to ensure that state and regional policies and best practices are established and maintained with representation from OUR city.
- Gulfport police officers have an average tenure that fluctuates between eight and ten years IN THE CITY. This means that they have extensive knowledge of the people, places, and politics that influence day to day life in the city. This knowledge gives them a tremendous advantage in recognizing problems, setting response and enforcement priorities, identifying criminal perpetrators, recovering stolen property, and more.
- The people have direct and efficient access to decision-making authorities. Those with complaints or concerns can easily meet with the chief of police to share ideas or request a grievance. My time is committed to the City of Gulfport and the city’s residents are always my priority.
- The people have more influence over decision-making authorities. Decisions about policy, personnel actions, equipment, training, and every other aspect of police operations are made entirely by local officials whose interests lie with Gulfport’s 13,000 residents and not the other 986,000 residents of the county. When a resident comes to my office to express a concern, I take into consideration how my response and concurrent decision will affect Gulfport, understanding that my job is subject to the wishes of the people of Gulfport and not Palm Harbor, for example.
Readers should not take away from this message any disparaging or negative opinions of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office or any other law enforcement agency. Sheriff Gualtieri runs an outstanding agency with men and women dedicated to professionalism and service to the residents of Pinellas. My message in this blog post is simply to explain that there are many powerful benefits for a city to maintain its own independent law enforcement.
Before I close, I would like to thank the council and city manager for maintaining a working relationship that allows and encourages me to share my thoughts and ideas directly and publicly in a forum such as this. I’ve learned from colleagues that this is often not the case.
As always, I do welcome and encourage your feedback.