Ask the average person what they think of when they hear “parks,” and you will likely get answers ranging from playgrounds to hiking to picnics. For St. Petersburg, Florida, Chief of Police Charles “Chuck” Harmon, you’ll get something a bit unexpected.
“Our park and summer recreation programs are opportunities to keep kids involved in constructive situations with positive role models so they don’t end up in the criminal justice system,” says Harmon, who has held his post since 2001.
With 20 percent of the city’s population under age 18, this is especially important during the summer months. It is during this time that, according to an article last year in the Tampa Bay Times, “many teens have less access to structured activities and too much time on their hands.”
To counter this, Harmon has been a leader in several key initiatives that closely link the police department with the park and recreation department.
One program is Operation Safe Summer, which takes the school-based safety officers and redeploys them into the parks and recreation centers during the summer. “These officers already know the kids, and it’s easy for them to talk with and work with them,” Harmon says. “They also know the recreation staff very well and can help address any current or potential issues.”
Another program is Inner-City Operation to Recruit for Public Safety (iCORPS). This program began in 2011 after three St. Petersburg police officers were killed in a 30-day span. “We needed to create a program that bridged a gap that existed between the local community and the police department,” says Program Director Kevin Kenyon. The result is this eight-week program that exposes middle-school children to public-safety occupations. As many as 80 students from the Child’s Park Recreation Center and Johns Hopkins Middle School participate in the program, which takes place at the St. Petersburg College Center for Public Safety Innovation at the All-State Center. During the program, the students hear from community leaders and get to tour the courthouse, see a K-9 unit demonstration and even rappel off a building.
Over the past few years, Harmon has overseen the creation and building of these programs, and he understands the important role the park and recreation department plays in helping kids not just stay out of trouble, but succeed in the community.
“The political favor has always been to give cops more resources to deal with issues, and I have always tried to resist that,” says Harmon. Instead, Harmon would rather build partnerships.
“Solving these issues is a team effort,” he says. “Every Tuesday, I sit down with the parks and recreation team, and we share what is going on. We are definitely on the same page when it comes to keeping the kids out of trouble.”
As these programs are fairly new, Harmon looks forward to seeing positive results. With his leadership and these great partnerships, there’s no doubt he and the City of St. Petersburg will succeed.
Peter Magnuson is NRPA’s Director of Marketing.