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 3, 2014

Body-Worn Cameras

Following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Missourri, media and public attention focused on conflicting witness statements about what happened during that tragic encounter. The lack of clarity has spurred many to press for an increase in the use of body-worn video cameras by police, and our profession is responding quickly and appropriately.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has published a model policy while the Police Executive Research Forum produced an analysis of the state of the technology. Both of these documents provide guidance as law enforcement chief administrators face decisions on if and how to deploy camera systems.

Here in Gulfport, we are ahead of the game, so to speak. Police officers have been using body-worn cameras for about five years. I initiated the program as a cheaper alternative to the expensive systems we had been installing in patrol cars. The body cameras cost about one fifth of what the in-car systems sell for. Primarily, they have been used by officers who are assigned vehicles that do not have in-car camera systems. We also issue them to school resource officers for the purpose of recording any physical interactions with students. So far, we have had some pretty good results, and I am not aware of any negative impacts on the officers or the people being recorded.

Our policy on the deployment and use of these camera systems was last updated in 2013. To be prudent, I have decided to put it up for review again, this time in consideration of the PERF and IACP publications, as well as input from the community we serve. To the latter, I recently attended a retreat with representatives from local law enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Christian League of Councils. The purpose of the meeting was to open an ongoing dialogue on how our communities might be best served by police use of field-recording technology.

While I support the goal of this group, I think it is also important to consider the input of the public we serve. To that end, I invite any and all to contact me with your ideas on this subject. Currently some of the most important decisions to make include the following:

  1. Should we require all on duty officers to wear a body camera, or should we continue leaving it an optional tool for them to use at their own discretion?
  2. Should we require officers with body cameras to record all official conduct, some specific types of conduct, or should they have discretion over what they record?
  3. Should we require officers to inform people when they are being recorded?

Each of these, of course, has pros and cons. A “record everything” policy, for example, could be extremely burdensome in terms of the workload associated with retrieving and storing the video. The storage costs would also become very expensive very quickly. Also, I’d hate to ask officers to focus on operating the camera when they’re dealing with potentially dangerous situations. We also have to consider the impact that such a policy might have on our ability to get confessions, or more importantly, victim statements. At this point, we just don’t know how people will react if they know that everything they say to a police officer will be recorded.

My plan is to have an updated policy in effect by the New Year. If you have any suggestions or comments, please let me know.  chief@gulfportpolice.com

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Check Out the Ink

For almost fifteen years, the Gulfport Police Department has maintained a policy forbidding officers from having exposed tattoos while in uniform. Starting today, that policy will change.

Under the new rules, tattoos are not allowed on the hands, neck or face, and any other exposed tattoos must be able to fit under a 3-inch by 5-inch card. Of course, inappropriate or offensive tattoos will be prohibited no matter where they are located or how small they are. Any questionable material will be reviewed by a panel that will include at least one Gulfport resident who is not a member of the police department.

Why the change? Why now? Quite simply, the community standards are changing, and we have to keep up. Tattoos are much more common than they were two decades ago, and their appearance in professional workplaces has become routine. A Tampa Tribune report published last year profiled tattoos among local law enforcement agencies. The report made it clear that the Gulfport policy was just not the norm for this time and location.

Gulfport officers with tattoos on forearms have been concealing them for years with all manner of coverups, which actually look more unprofessional than the tattoo. All the while, their colleagues working in neighboring agencies are working the same job without the additional restrictions. That sort of arrangement certainly does nothing to enhance morale.

We have also turned down plenty other otherwise-qualified candidates simply because they couldn’t meet our tattoo standard. I’m talking people with military experience and college education, turned away because of the ink on their arm. The pool of applicants is already small enough; we don’t need to help make it smaller.

As the personal appearance policy came up for routine review, I decided to take another look at tattoos, and after a thorough staff review, the new policy will go into effect this week. So, be on the lookout for the new ink out there. My guess is that our diverse community known for its live-and-let-live lifestyle will have no objections to the change. In fact, I’m betting we get some compliments. After all, tattoos are art.

Friday, August 8, 2014

On Volunteer Patrols

We have a neighbor here in Gulfport by the name of Al Santos who volunteers his time to patrol the streets looking for anything suspicious. Al rides a red scooter and wears an orange vest with the words “Citizen on Patrol” printed front and back. He covers about 15 miles a day driving around town, and his self-proclaimed mission is to “call police if I see anything worth reporting.” Al introduced himself to me by way of an e-mail to let me know what he was doing. My response: “thank you for your service!”

I have no objection to volunteer patrols, whether they be an individual effort like Al’s, or something more organized like the Guardian Angels organization. People have the right to move about on public property, and I see no reason to oppose anyone who is trying to make the community safer. In fact, I will even offer these folks information and support to help them provide the best service while keeping safe in the process. One common tip: you're not the police; do not intervene, report. 

This being the case, many question why GPD doesn’t have its own citizen patrol unit. With the recent resurgence of a crime watch program led by longtime resident, Ernie Stone, many have noted the conspicuous detachment of the Gulfport Police Department from programs of this nature. So, why don’t we run the crime watch? Why don’t we organize volunteer patrols? Why don’t we endorse or solicit such programs?

The answer is actually pretty simple. I believe our commitment to these kinds of activities should be all or none. If we do not have the resources to recruit, screen, train, equip, and supervise the people involved in crime watch and citizen patrols, then we have no business trying to run their programs. Even a little. The moment we affiliate ourselves with just a small portion of what these people do, the city could become completely responsible for all of their actions. Unless and until we are prepared to accept that responsibility, we cannot and should not get involved.

Absent the significant financial commitment required to properly run these programs, GPD will continue its long-standing practice of providing information and support to the independent volunteers like Al and Ernie while they exercise their right to do their own thing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

To Catch a Thief

When you’re awakened in the middle of the night by helicopter rotors and sirens accompanied by red & blue flashers and bright spotlights, the logical assumption is that something is up.

Exactly what that is, however, can be just about anything. It doesn’t always mean a murderer or rapist is on the loose.

Recently, Gulfport officers were asked to locate a man who was wanted by the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office for several counts of dealing in stolen property. When the officers found him, the suspect took off running, and the law enforcement machine went to work.

Since we share communications with the sheriff’s office, deputies were already monitoring the situation, and they responded immediately. In this densely-populated county with over twenty law enforcement agencies routinely working across jurisdictions, this is an everyday occurrence. Gulfport and PCSO patrol units set up a perimeter, and sheriff’s investigators requested air and K-9 support. For over an hour we searched; unfortunately, the suspect was able to evade capture. For the moment. He was apprehended a few days later under similar circumstances. A Gulfport officer spotted and recognized him, and with assistance from another agency (St. Petersburg PD this time), the suspect was apprehended by a K-9 while hiding under a house.

Is all this overkill for a thief? Is catching this kind of crook worth the expense and public inconvenience of saturating a neighborhood with a dozen or more officers and deputies, a couple of police dogs, and a helicopter? Well, you be the judge.

Consider that this man was wanted for 28 counts of dealing in stolen property. Each count is a second-degree felony punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. Consider that theft of property is Gulfport’s number one crime, has been for years, and is routinely among residents’ top complaints to police.

Some may think that such efforts should be reserved for violent offenders, but I’m the one who would be stuck explaining to the victims of the thefts and burglaries that we didn’t catch the criminal because we just didn’t try hard enough. That doesn’t sit well with me, but I don’t think there is a perfect answer. I see this particular case as a job well done, and I wouldn’t hesitate to put forth the same effort again. The best we can do is keep the resources available and leave it to the best judgment of our trained and experienced officers to make the right decisions on how and when to use them.

In the meantime, we’ll do our best to let the public know if there is ever a dangerous fugitive on the loose. We can send instant media alerts to news outlets, post messages on our Facebook page, and we invite residents to sign up for our new emergency alert system https://alertregistration.com/GulfPortFL/

Stay safe, and as always, your feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Monday, May 5, 2014

How Is Crime In My Neighborhood?

We often get calls from people wanting to know about crime in their neighborhood. This used to be a complicated question requiring our analyst to run a database query given a particular set of parameters, such as date range, geographic radius, crime type, etc. Even then, the results would be limited to data from Gulfport, which isn’t very helpful if you live near the border.

Well nowadays there is a much better way to get the information you want. Pinellas County has developed a web-based application that compiles crime information from most jurisdictions, including Gulfport and St. Petersburg. It works like this: every day, the system scans our records database and pulls information on dates, locations, and offense types. This data is then automatically plotted on a map of the county.

Users can access the system and run their own queries at any time. So if you want to know, for example, how many auto thefts there have been within a mile of your house in the last 30 days, just make a couple of clicks, and it will all be mapped for you.

This is extremely valuable information, but there are a couple of important caveats. While the system retrieves data daily, it does not update old records. So if an investigation has resulted in a change (a theft is discovered to have been a civil matter, for example) you may not have the most current or accurate classification. Additionally, it’s important to note that not all agencies classify their reports the same way. Database difference may make it appear as though one jurisdiction has lots of a particular offense while another has none. To minimize this effect, I recommend filtering each search to a limited number of offenses.

These hiccups aside, the crime viewer application is still the easiest way to get the most thorough results about crime in your neighborhood.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Proposed Gun Law is Dangerous

In the next couple of weeks, the Florida Senate will consider a bill (SB296 and HB209) that, as passed by the House, will allow unlicensed individuals to carry firearms during evacuation orders declared by the governor, or during emergencies declared by local officials.

If you support this bill on principle, I can understand that, but let me illustrate some scenarios for you that may change your mind.

Say, for example, a hurricane is approaching the Alabama/Florida border. The governor declares an emergency, and an evacuation is ordered in Escambia County. In response, a resident packs up and evacuates to his family's home in Gulfport. The way this bill is written, that person would be allowed to carry a concealed firearm in Gulfport for the duration of the emergency in the panhandle. Meanwhile, those who live here and who have not been subject to evacuation, would not be allowed to carry a gun.

Interestingly, the law would not only apply to state emergencies declared by the governor. The House version would extend the same privilege to those complying with orders issued by local officials. So if the mayor of Key West declares an emergency due to civil unrest, we could have Key West evacuees here in Gulfport lawfully carrying concealed firearms.

I haven't even mentioned the scariest thing. What if the emergency is here? Imagine if we have a riot in Pinellas County and the sheriff declares an emergency. At that moment, everyone in the entire county, even those in the company of the rioters (felons, etc. excluded of course), would be allowed to carry a concealed gun. Wow.

There is a reason we issue permits to people before they can carry concealed firearms. We check backgrounds, get fingerprints and photos, and ensure the people understand the laws and demonstrate proficiency with their weapons. Eliminating these safeguards, particularly in times of civil unrest, is a dangerous way to go.

I support the right of the people to keep and bear arms, but I think the current laws are sufficient. As it stands now, everyone already has the right to transport guns in their cars or carry them on their own private property, for example.

At the very least, the Senate has to address some important issues before it agrees to pass this bill. We need to be clear on the time and geographic limits that apply to evacuations, and we need to exclude the provision that applies to riots and affrays. I encourage you to contact your senator (it's Jeff Brandes for Gulfport residents) and ask him or her to insist on reasonable changes to this bill before approving its passage as law.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What's In a Cop?

Law enforcement officers are constantly faced with temptations as well as the means to abuse their authority. That is an unfortunate reality that is simply inherent in our line of work. To help prevent misconduct, we go to great lengths on the front end to make sure we’re picking the best people for the job. In 2013, the Gulfport Police Department processed 52 applications to fill just three police officer positions.

Minimum Qualifications
Applicants must be at least 21 years old and have completed the state law enforcement certification process, which includes a 770-hour basic recruit academy and passing a standardized test. In addition, applicants must have completed at least 60 college credits or a three-year active duty military enlistment. We only accept applications from individuals who meet these minimum standards. From there, the process only gets tougher.

Physical Abilities Test
To make sure our new recruits are up to the physical demands of the job, we run them through a timed test, which consists of a 440 yard run, an obstacle course, and dragging a 150-pound dummy for 100 feet. Applicants who cannot pass the PAT do not continue with the screening process.

Oral Board
Police work requires the ability to demonstrate exceptional communication skills under high stress conditions. So we put our applicants to the test. We assemble a group of three experienced, sworn supervisors who sit as a panel to interview each applicant. They ask scenario-based questions and evaluate applicants on their ability to present their answers effectively. The oral board rating scores are then considered later in the process when comparing multiple, qualified applicants.

Background Investigation
We ask each applicant to complete a ten-page personal history questionnaire. This document covers residency, work history, undetected criminal activity, drug use, military service, etc.  We then verify everything in the document via a lengthy investigation conducted by a sworn, experienced detective. The investigation will include interviews with the applicant’s neighbors, review of employment and military records, review of education records, database inquiries to confirm residential and employment history, police record checks, and a fingerprint criminal history check.

If a background investigation reveals no disqualifying conduct, the next step is a polygraph test. The examiner will review all facets of the applicant’s background in an effort to uncover anything that may have been missed to this point. In addition, the examiner will note any discrepancies which could indicate an effort to be misleading. Dishonesty is always a disqualifier.

Chief’s Interview
Nobody wears a Gulfport police badge without meeting with me first. I want the opportunity to ensure that each recruit understands our policing philosophy and is somebody I want to represent me, personally. A list of standardized questions is asked of each applicant in this interview. If they do well, I’ll extend an offer of employment, conditional upon passing the next two steps.

Psychological Evaluation
We employ the services of a clinical psychologist with over fifteen years’ experience. The doctor uses a standardized assessment instrument, and then he personally interviews each candidate. We receive a detailed, confidential report, along with a rating indicating the candidate’s psychological fitness for duty. If the rating is unacceptable, the job offer is rescinded.

Medical Evaluation
This final step is completed by a physician experienced in occupational health. The candidate is evaluated to ensure he or she has no medical issues that would interfere with the ability to perform essential functions of the job. A drug screen is included in this evaluation.

Field Training Program
If they get through all of the above steps, the candidate gets to put on a badge and is now a Gulfport police officer. However, there is still a long way to go. As a part of the one-year probationary period, new recruits must complete a vigorous, 16-week, on-the-job training program. During this time, an experienced officer observes and evaluates the recruit every moment of every day. Those who perform well in this program will achieve their goal of becoming “solo” officers, but close evaluation continues for another eight months until the probation period ends and the new officer is no longer a rookie.

As you can see, it takes a lot to become a police officer in Gulfport, but we are proud of that fact. This is a lengthy and expensive process, for sure, but I think the people of Gulfport deserve the best for their money. I will continue to do my best to ensure they get it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Traffic Stop from the Cop's Perspective

Several times a day our officers initiate traffic stops on motorists. Most frequently, these encounters are in connection with minor traffic violations, so it is understandable that motorists often think such stops are routine for the officers. The fact is, however, that any traffic stop can be hazardous-or even deadly- to an officer. Despite improvements in technology, officers still have no way of knowing who is in the car they've just stopped. Often times the person being pulled over for a simple traffic violation has committed an offense the officer knows nothing about, or the person is wanted, has just left the scene of a crime, or has something to hide from the police. The officer approaching the car does not know the answers to any of these questions until he or she can make inquiries.

A person being pulled over by the police should first understand that the officer is participating in what he or she regards as potentially a life-threatening action. In the annual listings of circumstances leading to the death of on-duty police officers in this country, traffic stops are always in the lead. We train officers to be especially careful and cautious during car stops.

Motorists who have been stopped often comment on how the officer appeared threatening to them. Officers approach slowly and deliberately and look closely in the interior of the car, including the back seat. When someone opens the glove box to retrieve a vehicle registration, the officer cranes his neck to the point where he almost has his head inside the car window. To the motorists, this may seem intrusive or disrespectful, but to the officer it is paramount that he can see everyone’s hands and be alert to any threat.

All of these actions are intentional; officers train intensively to do these things the same way, every single time, to approach a car cautiously and deliberately, and to look for ‘furtive movement’ by the vehicle occupants. The driver could be trying to hide something under the front seat (beer?, drugs?, gun?). Observing the passenger compartment and carefully watching the removal of something from the glove box or console is done for the purpose of personal safety and for detecting the presence of possible contraband.

So what does the honest citizen do to minimize the officer's concerns? First, please try to understand why the officer is taking these precautions. There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop. Officers are taught that any traffic stop could very well be the last traffic stop.  When you sense this caution or tension in the officer, please understand that he or she does not usually know who or what to expect. Once the officer learns your identity, confirms the vehicle registration, and sees no evidence of criminal behavior on your part, you will probably see the officer noticeably relax his or her approach.

You should also avoid getting out of the car immediately after being stopped and approaching the officer while he or she is still in the vehicle. Officers are cautioned about being ‘trapped’ in their own vehicle. This behavior also raises suspicion in the officer's mind that there is something, or somebody, in the car that the you don’t want the officer to see. Remain in the car and let the officer approach you; keep your hands plainly visible; and avoid those ‘furtive movements.’

When a police officer makes initial contact, permit him or her to speak and act first. The officer will ask for your driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. These are lawful requirements of you, but more importantly, it helps the officer determine that you are not a car thief and you are not driving with a suspended license.

Once these essential preliminaries are taken care of, it is appropriate for you and the officer to discuss why you were stopped. It may be a traffic violation or it may be that your car matches the description of one the police are looking for regarding an incident that has occurred. If this is the case, please understand that we are often dealing with only partial descriptions, that those who commit crimes do switch tags on cars, and criminals actually lie to police officers.

The suspected traffic violator will sometimes disagree with the officer's observation. Police officers are similar to baseball umpires in that they will listen to the other side of a dispute. Convincing arguments are usually characterized by facts and logic, not emotion, threat, or volume. In fact, threats and aggressive emotions can present a host of other issues that must be addressed.

Traffic citations are not pronouncements of guilt. Police officers, being human, make errors and so do citizens. Courts of law have been created to impartially hear complaints of disputed tickets, that court is the proper place to argue your case, not the scene of the incident. Police officers readily accept the fact that their judgments are subject to question and review by competent authority. However, when they are on the side of the road, their first focus will always be for officer safety.

Thank you for helping us do our job. If you ever feel you have been the subject of unlawful profiling or harassment, please contact any police supervisor to register a complaint.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Golf Carts Revisited

The City Council has agreed to have another discussion on whether to allow golf carts to operate on public roadways. I will be making a brief presentation based on some documents that I have prepared.

Essentially, my position is that I am professionally opposed to the operation of golf carts on municipal roadways for the following reasons:

  1. The closing speed between golf carts and other traffic will be too fast. The 85th percentile speed on many of our roads is approximately 30 mph, with many vehicles travelling near 35 mph. The maximum speed for a golf cart is 20 mph, with many only capable of reaching 15 mph. That leaves a potential closing speed of at least 10 mph and as much as 20 mph.
  2. Golf carts do not have safety features equivalent to those in motor vehicles. With an open body, studies from the US Consumer Products Safety Commission, University of Alabama, and others have shown an increased risk of passenger ejection. The vehicles typically do not offer shoulder restraints, and unless required by local ordinance, hip restraints are not even standard. There are also no head restraints to protect against whiplash, nor are there airbags as on most cars today.
  3. Slow moving carts create a condition more dangerous than bicycles or scooters because they occupy more of the travel lane. A motor vehicle operator can take an evasive maneuver to pass a bicycle or scooter even with the presence of oncoming traffic. This is not possible upon approaching a golf cart. The only option would be braking, and if there is insufficient stopping distance, a collision will occur.
  4. We do not possess the qualification to declare any of our roadways safe for the operation of golf carts. By doing so, we accept a responsibility and risk previously relegated to the state. This significant risk to all of our citizens is not outweighed by the minor benefit to a few of our citizens who are simply seeking a way to avoid the cost and inconvenience of the current state registration process for low speed vehicles.

Thursday, January 23, 2014