Rick Baker won’t definitively say whether he would retain police chief Anthony Holloway if the former St. Petersburg mayor wins a third term at city hall.
Mayor Rick Kriseman has been working to show voters he made the right choice in hiring Holloway in 2014, bragging about Holloway’s achievements and warning that it could disappear if Baker wins the election.
Kriseman said Holloway has helped improve community-police relationships in the city.
"The number of complaints against police officers has decreased from an average when Mr. Baker was mayor from 78 to 14," Kriseman said at the July 25 debate hosted by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9.
We wanted to know if complaints dropped by that much, and why.
Kriseman’s evidence comes from the police department’s Office of Professional Standards, which investigates complaints and criminal misconduct. The complaints are broken down into citizen-initiated and department-initiated complaints.
The figures Kriseman cites are accurate for the number of citizen-initiated complaints. The average number of department-initiated complaints also fell from Baker to Kriseman, from 76 to 39.
Citizen-initiated complaints have — for the most part — been dropping since the beginning of 2001. They average number also decreased during the four-year term of Baker's successor, Mayor Bill Foster. From January 2010 to January 2014, the average number of citizen-initiated complaints was 41.
Asked to explain the drop, the police department credited increased communication between residents and police.
"People understand what we do and why we do it, and our sergeants and frontline supervisors have become more accustomed to explaining why things are done a certain way," said Maj. Tim Brockman, who has been the Office of Professional Standards commander for two years and with the department for over two decades.
Concerns or inquiries are sometimes handled by police before a formal complaint is filed, he added.
Holloway has made several moves to implement a community policing philosophy, a Kriseman campaign pledge. Holloway has encouraged officers to leave their cruisers and talk to residents, building relationships with the people the police are serving.
In 2014, the department started a Park, Walk and Talks program that requires all uniformed officers to walk a patrol area at least an hour a week. Police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said the department has 384 uniformed officers and in the most recent three months of 2017 (April, May and June), there were 5,809 logged walks.
From the 1990s until 2006, the department's approach was different: More than 40 officers were each committed to a particular neighborhood. However, former police chief Chuck Harmon, who held the job from 2001 to 2014, said he stopped that initiative amid complaints from the department.
"One of the things that I found is that community officers were engaging with just a handful of people, and those people were demanding most of their time," Harmon said.
Harmon also said he became police chief at "tough time" when relationships between the police and community were strained. Before Harmon was hired, Baker had selected Mack Vines to serve as police chief. Vines was fired by Baker after he used the term "orangutan" to describe the actions of a black suspect's resistance.
Finally, we'll note that law enforcement agencies don't record complaints the same way, making it difficult to compare St. Petersburg's practices to other jurisdictions. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office takes a very broad look at complaints. Any person who calls in, writes a letter or emails with a concern is counted in the data provided by the department. In 2016, 64 members were investigated by a commander within their department and 44 members were investigated by the administrative division.
St. Petersburg police included investigations by the department and the Office of Professional Standards — which does not include some of the call-ins that were determined to not be a complaint.
Kriseman said, "The number of complaints against police officers has decreased on an average when Mr. Baker was mayor from 78 to 14."
Those numbers check out for citizen-initiated complaints. The city attributes the decline to increased communication with the community and the police, among other factors. It’s worth noting that citizen-initiated complaints for the most part have been declining for the past decade-plus, which might not be apparent in Kriseman's wording.
Kriseman’s claim is accurate but needs additional information. For that reason, we rate it Mostly True.