With the proposal at a recent workshop to consider building a new police station, I knew it wouldn’t be long before folks started asking for my comments.
The fact is, this is not a new idea. I presented the concept during budget planning in 2009/2010 as an effort to help address rising concerns about safety on our city’s northeastern border. It quickly became clear, however, this project was unlikely to become reality without an independent funding source.
Fast forward to now, when it’s been suggested that the city borrow money for this and other construction projects, and suddenly it’s the topic du jour. Everybody (well, lots of people anyway) want to hear my take on whether or not we should break a long-standing debt-free position so that we can build a police station.
I will say this first: we (as in, the police department employees) do not need a new police station. We operate in a building that is less than 20 years old and is completely functional for our work and our mission. Sure, it’s got some problems. The women’s locker room is too small; we have no exercise facility; we are using holding cells to store sensitive equipment; and our video/audio surveillance systems are inadequate. But the truth is that all of these things could be brought up to standard in the existing space for far less than it would cost to build a new building. Any argument in favor of new construction would not be justified, even in part, based on a claim that our working conditions merit a new building.
That being said, I do believe that establishing a new police station, located on 49th Street, is a good idea. There are three primary reasons I make this claim: facility security, improved perception of safety, and economic development.
The current police headquarters is located in a flood zone that requires mandatory evacuation in the event of a major hurricane. Evacuating the building is itself a serious challenge for our operations, but the larger concern is the fact that many critical items (radio tower and transmitters, fuel storage tanks, emergency electric generator) are exposed to a greater risk of flood damage or destruction. It makes sense to have these items in an area with higher elevation, such as the site of the current Neighborhood Center on 49th Street.
“Make 49th Street safer” is a chant I hear all too often. In comparing Gulfport crime rates to those of the Child’s Park neighborhood, I can assure you that our streets and homes are much safer. There is clearly a different expectation of police service from our residents, and I think we do a great job of meeting those expectations. What the people of Gulfport cannot do (and should not try to do, in my opinion) is impose those standards on the city of St. Petersburg. Our neighbors have every right to determine the level of service they expect from their government, and our residents do not and should not have a vote in that decision. After all, I don’t tell my officers to pull back their efforts when St. Petersburg residents complain that they’re too heavy-handed.
Faced with the simple fact that crime of all types is much higher in the communities that share our border to the east, many folks in Gulfport feel unsafe when they live or traverse near that border. This perception was confirmed in a 2010 “survey of community partners,” where respondents from all over Gulfport indicated in high percentages that the 49th Street corridor should get more police attention than other areas of our city. There is also some factual basis to support the negative perception of the area. While overall crime is not necessarily higher in the 49th Street corridor, one type of crime happens to be—robbery. Almost half of all robberies (taking property by force) occur within three blocks of 49th Street.
Many academic studies have been published which discount the belief that police presence decreases crime. On the contrary, several other studies have confirmed that increased police presence can significantly reduce the perception or fear of crime. That may seem superficial, but such an effect is very desirable and can produce exponential benefits. We’ve already done several things to increase police presence on 49th Street. I reconfigured patrol zones so that three (as opposed to two) officers patrol this roadway every shift. I designated the Neighborhood Center parking lot as the preferred location for officers to transfer prisoners from their patrol cars to the transport van. I assigned a community resource officer specifically to focus on problems in the 49th Street redevelopment area, and he works primarily out of an office in the Neighborhood Center. While these things have had some effect, I can think of nothing else that would make the impact of building a conspicuously-placed police headquarters on 49th Street.
Helping people to feel safer is an important part of improving the economic viability of any area. Police presence goes a long way toward this goal, but we also need more legitimate activities that attract people, particularly at night. There are two properties on 49th Street that lend themselves to evening activities. One is the theater, and the other is the former Czech hall, both of which are located in the 1600 block of 49th Street, adjacent to the site where any new police headquarters would likely be built. Being next door to the cop shop would certainly boost the confidence of any prospective investor who may want to open a new, or boost existing business. I would even suggest reserving a portion of the new building for lease to a private enterprise that would attract night-time activity.
Obviously, the council faces a tough decision here. While I maintain that the cops don’t need a new police station, there is no question that there would be significant community benefits to building a new headquarters on 49th Street. The question is, are those benefits worth the costs? How many other city projects would be delayed or eliminated in favor of this one? As our elected officials mull over the data and try to answer that and other questions, I certainly don’t envy them of their task.
Whatever happens, rest assured that the men and women of GPD will continue to do our best to uphold the expectations our residents have established.