An inaugural civilian evaluation of the Palmetto Police Department has revealed strong support for the department’s officers, but also found that more attention is needed on crucial community concerns.
At the behest of Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler, a group of University of South Florida students conducted the citywide survey to evaluate his department’s perceived relationship with citizens. Scott particularly wanted the study to focus on the Community Redevelopment Agency, which includes about 40 percent of the overall population, yet averages 65 percent of the city’s crime rate.
The CRA boundaries encompass the heart of the city’s downtown area from 11th Avenue West, south to the riverfront, north to 17th Street West and with sections extended eastward beyond Haben Boulevard.
Each year, Tyler presents an updated community policing plan to the CRA, which funds six full-time and two part-time officers, but this is the first time a civilian study was included in the plan. Tyler will seek almost $550,000 from the CRA to pay for six full-time officers and two part-time officers dedicated solely to the CRA.
“I believe we are being successful,” Tyler said. “Part of the strategy of having these officers in the CRA is building relationships where they can get to know the citizens, and it’s important for the officers to get to know the area and the residents. These particular officers are dedicated to come up with strategies that address specific concerns that residents and businesses are telling us exist in the CRA.”
According to the study, the department’s relationship with the community is fairly strong, with an average between 70-80 percent of respondents saying they trust the police department and believe its officers act in a professional manner. Almost 95 percent of respondents say Palmetto is a safe place to live, but when asked if the city is safer than last year, 35 percent said no.
The overall study also included two focus groups and again, as a whole, the department’s perception within the community is largely positive. But participants raised several concerns, including the need to address gangs, the sale and use of drugs, disorderly youth and a growing homeless population north of the Manatee River.
Tyler said he understands the perception from years past, but stated there is a substantial decrease in gang activity in Palmetto. Drug use, however, specifically opioid overdoses are spiking. Since January, the city has responded to 40 overdoses, but only one fatality. As part of his strategy, Tyler’s department has focused their attention on business parking lots where most of the drug transactions appear to be taking place.
“It’s smart on the part of the dealer, because the users aren’t coming to a traditional drug house any more,” Tyler said. “The user picks up the phone and meets his dealer in a parking lot, and that’s where the transactions are taking place.”
Tyler acknowledged a growing homeless issue, but said his department takes a compassionate approach to enforcing the law. Being homeless isn’t a crime, but they can be dealt with, specifically with community policing strategies at the forefront. Tyler is a strong advocate for community policing strategies that bring his officers and the community together with common goals of creating a good quality of life in Palmetto.
The relationship you are ruining may be worse than the crime you are trying to stop.
Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler
“When I hire new officers, I have a conversation from the get-go to explain what community policing is,” Tyler said. “I’m very proud of them because they take that vision and make it their own.”
The effort to build relationships in the city’s high-crime areas appears to working. Tyler said the citizens in those neighborhoods are cooperating more with law enforcement, which led to resolving some of the city’s most serious crimes during the past year.
While the survey was a good first look at how the community views the police department, both Tyler and CRA Director Jeff Burton acknowledge some flaws in the survey. It was intended to focus more on the CRA, but was overly represented in responses from outside the CRA. The majority of respondents, 83 percent, were white and tended to be elderly with an average household income of $65,000.
“The data does not represent the population distribution of the CRA, “Burton said. “The CRA is different from the rest of the city in a variety of ways.”
Tyler and Burton agree that continuing to do a civilian evaluation of the police department has value, and they hope to conduct one every four years to build a database of progress and determine where to readdress resources as needed.
We are leading the way here on how we measure the value of community policing.
Palmetto CRA Director Jeff Burton
“We are leading the way here on how we measure the value of community policing,” Burton said. “It’s something a lot of CRA directors don’t like to talk about. It’s a touchy situation for them because it can get political, but we want to do it right and I think we are heading in the right direction.”